DNA as a crime fighting tool: Why we may be in danger of putting too much faith in it

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Credit: Chris Whetzel

What happens to a society when there’s suddenly a new way to identify people—to track them as they move around the world? That’s a question that the denizens of the Victorian turn of the century pondered, as they learned of a new technology to hunt criminals: fingerprinting.

[F]ingerprints were an inviolable, immutable truth, as prosecutors and professional “fingerprint examiners” began to proclaim.

Yet it also became clear, over time, that fingerprinting wasn’t as rock solid as boosters would suggest. Police experts would often proclaim in court that “no two people have identical prints”—even though this had never been proven, or even carefully studied.

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Yet DNA identification, like fingerprinting, can be prone to error when used sloppily in the field. One problem, notes Erin Murphy, professor of criminal law at New York University School of Law, is “mixtures”: If police scoop up genetic material from a crime scene, they’re almost certain to collect not just the DNA of the offender, but stray bits from other people.

To keep DNA from being abused, we’ll have to behave like good detectives—asking the hard questions, and demanding evidence.

Read full, original post: The Myth of Fingerprints

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