About 15 years later, another inmate, Bobby Poole, was assigned to the same jail. Poole looked so much like Cotton the guards sometimes called them by each other's name. Cotton appealed for DNA tests against the rape kit that had been preserved by the police. The tests proved Cotton did not do the rape. They also proved that Poole did. Poole was convicted and Cotton was released after spending a decade and a half in jail for a crime he did not commit. Cotton graciously forgave his mistaken accuser.
Cases like this show how unreliable eye-witness reports may be, even if (as in this case) the victim was highly intelligent, took care to be observant, and she and the police and the trial court were totally honest and professional.
According to the TV program, several hundred wrongly-convicted inmates have been released in the past decade on the basis of newly available DNA technology. That is a tremendous stride for justice!
HOWEVER RAPES AND OTHER VIOLENT CRIMES STILL OCCUR
While DNA tchnology is now available to confirm the identity of the rapist if, as in most cases, a DNA sample can be obtained, rapes and other violent crimes continue to occur with disturbing frequency.
The problem is that DNA is used only to confirm identity. The police have to use far less certain, old-fashioned methods to track down the suspect. They must depend upon eye-witness evidence that is known to be unreliable. They depend upon informants who are often criminals themselves and may have their private agendas. They depend upon stereotypes and -lets admit it- profiling based on criminal history, race, age, neighborhood, and gender.
WHAT IF A COMPREHENSIVE DNA DATABASE WAS AVAILABLE?
When an automobile is involved in a crime or an accident and the license plate number is caught on video surveillance or is reported by a witness, it is easy to identify the owner of the car and investigate further.
Wouldn't it be great if this was the case with rapes and other violent crimes?
Violent assailants often leave some bodily evidence (ejaculate, hair, saliva, blood, skin, sweat, ...) on the victim and/or at the crime scene. Given a comprehensive DNA database, it would be almost as easy as looking up a license plate number to finger the suspect!
Yes, a careful and thoughtful rapist could wear gloves and a hairnet and use a condom and require his victim to douche, etc., and that would defeat the DNA ID method in some cases. However, most assailants are not that clever.
OBJECTIONS TO A DNA DATABASE
The only rational objection to a DNA database would come from potential rapists and other criminals who don't want to be caught - and their criminal defense lawyers who like a steady income - often paid out of public defender tax dollars.
Yes, there is the issue of "privacy". Many people do not want their DNA (or fingerprints) on file at the FBI or other police agency because they are worried about how such identifying data might be used by a rogue government cracking down on dissidents or other non-favored individuals.
That is not a worry for me. I quite willingly had my fingerprints taken as part of a security check to allow me to work on classified military projects. As far as I know, my fingerprints ar still on file at the FBI.
In any case, for most of us who have a well-documented and fixed place of residence, families, employers, sources of income, bank accounts, credit cards, cars, and so on, we are easily found. Those of us who keep our cell phones on at all times are leaving computerized records of exactly where we have been, minute by minute, every single day. The only people who may benefit from "privacy" are the homeless and jobless, and the criminals who may commit crimes while using YOUR stolen car or cell phone or credit card or identity!
Another issue, more serious, is the possible use of a DNA database to identify individuals who may be susceptable to certain genetic diseases, and the possible use of that information by health insurers to refuse coverage or charge a higher premium. (As a utilitarian, I see nothing wrong with the current actuarial system where young men pay higher auto insurance rates, smokers higher health premiums, people living in wooden houses higher fire insurance, those in tornado alley higher storm insurance, and so on based on demonstrated risk levels. Unfortunately, health insurance seems to be moving into a different category even for illnesses that are mostly self-inflicted due to smoking, drinking, or over-eating.)
The genetic ID objection may be dismissed easily. DNA has sufficient markers such that those associated with genetic deseases may be eliminated from the DNA record stored in a comprehensive database. There are plenty of DNA markers available without getting into medical risk levels.
COLLECTING DNA IS EASY
When my son-in-law and I were teaching classes at Brandeis Summer Odyssey several years ago, he wanted his students to do a DNA project. The administrators would not allow him to take samples from students, who were minors of high school age, so they took samples from faculty members, including me. All I had to do was touch the inside of my cheek with a q-tip. Very easy and rapid. The students ran the sample through DNA testing equipment my son-in-law obtained from Harvard University. DNA samples could easily be taken at Motor Vehicle Departments when new driver's licenses are issued. They could also be taken at high schools as part of the driver's ed class.