DNA Technology and How it Has Impacted Term Paper

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DNA technology and how it has impacted the American criminal justice system. The research was conducted utilizing secondary resources, such as testimonies from DNA experts and published resources. It was discovered that, despite challenges faced by the technology, DNA has positively affected the criminal justice system by allowing for the successful capture and prosecution of criminals, as well as exonerating those who were wrongly imprisoned.


Overview of DNA

DNA as an Investigative Tool

Inception of the National DNA Index



This research is an investigation into the way DNA technology has affected America's criminal justice system by detailing its uses, as well as the challenges that still lay ahead. Utilizing secondary resources including the testimonies of several experts in the field, including the Director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, the Executive Director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence and the Assistant Director for the Laboratory Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as published resources from other experts, I sought to answer the question of how DNA has imapcted America's criminal justice system.

DNA and its Impact on the Criminal Justice System


Statement of the Problem:

The topic of this paper is DNA technology and the American criminal justice system. The purpose of this research is to show that DNA evidence has positively changed the judicial system, despite the challenges it continues to face. My intent is to use this research to better understand the importance of DNA technology to be able to promote its use both pre and post conviction.


For one to fully understand the impact DNA has had on the criminal justice system, in the United States, it's imperative to have a general knowledge about DNA and the history of DNA's use in the system. This section presents an overview of DNA, as an introduction to the topic and concludes with the historic development of the use of DNA as a means of genetic forensics or criminal profiling.

Overview of DNA:

DNA is organized as two complementary strands that are linked together with bonds that can be separated. Each strand of DNA is a chemically linked chain of nucleotides, which are made up of a sugar, a phosphate and one of four kinds of nucleobases, often simply referred to as bases. These bases are: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, abbreviated as A, T, C, and G. Furthermore, these bases only pair up properly with one other base, A with T, C with G, and vice versa, on their complementary strand ("DNA").

The order these pairs occur in is relevant. A + T is not the same as T + A. However, since there is only one possible mate for every base, naming only the base on the conventionally chosen side of the DNA strand is sufficient to describe its sequence. Splitting the double strand down the middle via a chemical reaction performs replication. The two single strands then seek out their proper mate from a 'soup' of the four bases. As each base only has one correct mate base, each single strand replicates the double strand perfectly, unless a mutation occurs ("DNA"). It is the unique arrangement of the components of an individual's DNA that the judicial system has turned to help identify criminals.

DNA as an Investigative Tool for Law Enforcement:

DNA, as one of law enforcement's investigative tools, was first introduced into the courtroom in the late 1980s. It was used not only to convict criminals of crimes, but also to free those who had been wrongly imprisoned. "By mid-1999 more than 60 people had been released from American prisons following post-conviction analysis of DNA evidence. Many of them had already served a number of years behind bars" (Langeneckert).

When creating a DNA profile, a sample of the individual's cells is first collected. This typically comes from blood, tissue or saliva. From this sample, a DNA molecule is removed and purified. It is then cut and processed to reveal the individual's unique pattern. Once this pattern is established, it can then be compared with DNA samples from the crime scene, in criminal cases (Langeneckert).

Initially, the reliability of DNA evidence was questioned, however, by the end of the 1990s, a number of advances improved the consistency of the data. These advances included comparing a greater number of sites on the DNA molecules and rendered a DNA match effectively 100% conclusive. In addition to the advancements that allowed for increased reliability, enhanced technology began to allow for much smaller sample sizes than ever before. Even the smallest "amounts of saliva, such as those found on the rim of a coffee cup or the back of a postage stamp, were enough to be analyzed and used as evidence" (Langeneckert). These advancements saw DNA profiling become more and more commonly used in the American justice system.

The Inception of the National DNA Index System:

As mentioned, by using DNA, forensic genetics can identify individuals involved in criminal cases, such as murder or rape. To establish a DNA 'fingerprint' that is unique to the individual, the DNA is first extracted from the chromosomes in the nucleus of a cell, from the sample that was collected. The DNA is then cut into fragment utilizing any one of a group of special restriction enzymes. These enzymes cut the DNA only at specific cutting sites. It is this pattern of cutting sites that is inherited from one's parents and is the beginning of the creation of a genetic profile (Levine).

Recognizing the value of collecting DNA information for investigative purposes, the Federal Bureau of Investigations launched a program in October of 1998, known as the National DNA Index System (NDIS). This nationwide computer database seeks to capitalize on the crime-solving potential of DNA by allowing states to submit samples of DNA from criminals and unknown persons at crime scenes. These can then be cross-referenced to help prosecute criminals. Only three months after its inception, the NDIS had been used approximately 200 times to solve crimes (Langeneckert).

The database increased as all fifty states joined the system. However, "although all states had laws requiring at least some convicted criminals to provide DNA samples, many did not have the resources needed to collect and process them" (Langeneckert). For this reason, the NDIS has not grown as quickly or been used as efficiently as its creators had hoped.

Despite the early success of the program in capturing hundreds of criminals, less than one-third of the states were submitting their DNA samples to the NDIS. To complicate matters further, there was a backlog of more than 400,000 DNA samples that had been collected, but still had not been processed. This is in addition to 200,000 samples that needed to be retested due to advancements in technology (Langeneckert). This delay in using the database to its fullest has delayed the full effectiveness of forensic genetics.


This literature review will document the findings of experts in the field of DNA technology and its use in the criminal justice system, as well as its shortcomings.

Dr. Paul Ferrara, Director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science notes that DNA technology has advanced significantly over the past two decades. DNA evidence has evolved from being simply used for identification purposes to being used extensively in all phases of the American judicial system. From the investigative stage, through arrest and prosecution, to even post conviction, DNA technology has changed the face of the criminal judicial system.

The use of DNA to convict the guilty and exonerate those who are innocent is a powerful technological tool. Some of the more compelling stories of criminal capture, thanks to DNA evidence, have received media attention. In 1999, New York City authorities used DNA evidence to link a man to 22 sexual assaults and robberies that had terrorized the city. Both Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Fort Collins, Colorado authorities used DNA evidence, in 2002, to solve a series of rapes and a murder that had been perpetrated by the same individual. DNA evidence also provided the breakthrough authorities needed to solve the 'Green River' killings that had been unsolved for years and had previously cost $15 million for the investigation (Coble).

Even the American government has realized the importance of supporting this judicial system tool. Representative Howard Coble noted, there is ( ... ) no question that the current federal and state DNA collection and analysis system needs improvement. In many instances, public crime labs are overwhelmed by backlogs of unanalyzed DNA samples. In addition, these labs may be ill equipped to handle the increasing influx of DNA samples and evidence.

Ferrara agrees, as well, that the forensic science laboratories of today are facing a significant crisis. The increased demands and reduced resources are hampering the true potential of DNA technology. Evidence often languishes, because of this challenge. And, those whose fates are in the balance must remain on tenterhooks…[continue]

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