Saturday, August 8, 2009

We Need a Comprehensive DNA Database

A recent TV newsmagazine featured the story of a woman who was raped some 20 years ago, before DNA was generally available to confirm the identity of the suspect. She testified that she carefully observed the facial features of her assailant and helped the police sketch artist make an excellent drawing. She then picked Ronald Cotton out of a photo lineup and later the same guy out of a physical lineup. On the basis of her certain eyewitness testimony, Cotton was convicted and sent to jail.

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!


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.


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.


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.


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.

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Ira said:
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.

Joel responds:

I don't understand what you mean by "utilitarian." Wikipedia gives various definitions of this system of ethics depending whether you follow Bentham, Marx, Wittgenstein or Singer. Which approach do you take? -Joel

JohnS said...

I have no intrinsic objection to a DNA database but I am astonished that Ira would propose such a thing. I am also shocked that he downplays the privacy issue. I am assuming his DNA database would be an all-inclusive national database. Our DNA would be placed in the database at birth. In principle, I am willing to take the next logical steps, a national identity card, possibly a national ID chip inserted under our skin. I, as Ira stated, am not concerned with law enforcement having this information.
To be effective this database must be fast allowing rapid searches that is fine but will it be hack proof? Will it be impossible for “rogue” agencies to modify the database – remove a DNA file? Will our new forthcoming health care system be able to tailor health resources based on the file?
I have other concerns. If I spit on the sidewalk can they access the database and fine me? I know that is extreme but I am unsure at what level of law enforcement and other governmental agencies should be allowed to access the database.
It would seem to me if we were going to have national databases of any kind we need to modify the Constitution so that the Supremes will oversee the uses of these databases

Ira Glickstein said...

Leave it to Joel to ask what kind of "utilitarian" I am. After reading this overview I seems to be a non-denominational utilitarian, closer to Bentham and Mills and Kant than the others. It seems to me professional philosophers take these ideas to the extreme, making them into puzzles that confuse the simple point.

The basic point of utilitarianism is to use common resources wisely from the point of view of general benefit to members of the community over the long term. It does not mean a strict arithmetical sum of pleasure minus pain for all members of the community, not does it imply totally exact treatment for all. In general, utilitarians believe that rules have consequences, so we should establish rules that reward actions that benefit the community and penalize actions that weaken the community. The choices should have a long horizon, including future generations.

It its most extreme form, imagine a group of people stuck in the desert with only enough water for a few to make it out. Alternatives: 1) Share equally, all will most likely perish. 2) Hope and pray that the group will be spotted by some random airplane. 3) The two or three strongest are given the water (or take it by force) and have a chance of making it out and getting help that may save some or all of the others. The utilitarian would choose #3. But, what if the strongest guy is the person who got us into this mess in the first place? As a utilitarian, I would still go with #3.

Thanks John for posting - I've missed your wise words. Yes, it would be an all-inclusive (inter)national database, and would pose all the dangers of misuse you imagine. The same was true of the invention of fire and religion and dynamite and nuclear power and all other technology we depend upon for modern life.

It would eventually lead to a positive ID society (as I dramatize in My Free Novel).

Yes, if you spit on the sidewalk you could get a ticket in the mail, just as you do now if you run a red-light camera. What is wrong with that?

Would we rather stick with the current system where most infractions are not punished? Where human police who happen to observe infractions give the tickets? (And where some of them take bribes or demand protection money and where others abuse their positions via racial and other profiling or discrimination?)

Ira Glickstein

JohnS said...

Our founders went to considerable length to protect the individual from intrusive government, mainly in the Bill of Rights. In this changed and changing world how much do we want to reduce this protection? I, as an individual, have little objection to a DNA database, to a Medical database, to a National ID card. I have just read an interesting summary of the House’s proposed health care system. On the surface, I would not object to its implementation. I would not object to some form national education plan. Our world is a different place than it was in the 1700s. Many benefits arise from data banks. With that said, I fear Big Brother; I fear the Washington bureaucracy; I fear the integrity – lack thereof – of our national representatives.
I do not believe that Washington has the same interest in protecting its citizens from an intrusive government as our forefathers did. I believe in a strong rein on governmental intrusion and the only mechanism we have is the Constitution.
You mentioned the use of cameras at intersections to record those who run red lights. Maybe I can make my point by discussing the use of those cameras. Their use at high traffic intersections or at intersections where there are frequent accidents is an appropriate use. To use them to generate revenue, to use them injudiciously on every street corner would be wrong; in my mind, an authority higher than the police should judge where to place the cameras.
Today our federal agencies operate almost autonomously, look at Obama’s Czars. I don’t want them deciding who can and can’t use my personal information, DNA or otherwise. I can’t foresee how my personal information may be used or misused in the future, no one can. Therefore, I believe that constraints must be defined in a Constitutional amendment to assure the information is used only as necessary and used judiciously.
To address your specific question, “Would we rather stick with the current system where most infractions are not punished? Where human police who happen to observe infractions give the tickets? (And where some of them take bribes or demand protection money and where others abuse their positions via racial and other profiling or discrimination?) “ . Yes, I’d prefer the current system if there were no constraints on the new. No, I’d prefer the new system with rational constraints.
There is sin and mortal sin; there are lies and little white lies. The same applies to crime. We all commit crimes mostly minor crimes, speeding, spitting on the sidewalk, hurrying through a yellow light etc. Do I want Big Brother observing me from the sky and ticketing me? No! There was an email circulating about a driver crossing an intersection noticed the camera blink. He knew the light was green so he went around the block and the light blinked again. He did this five times and then went on. In a few days, he got five tickets – for driving without his seat belt on. It is neither necessary nor appropriate for people of a free country having to constantly be in fear of committing a minor infraction simply because modern technology allows constant oversight of its citizens.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks John for your thought-provoking comments. I agree with you that as technology improves and the world changes, so do specific protections and details of law, so long as the basic Constitutional norms are maintained. I think we agree that as technology improves the ability of criminals to commit crimes and conceal themselves, the police should use technology to balance the protection and reduce costs for the vast majority of us who commit no serious crime. I too have driven through more than one light that was "only light pink", have spit out my gum or otherwise broken minor rules.

Red light cameras, as you note, are a great example. At high traffic intersections they are justified because they reduce accidents (and also cost less and are more fair than human cops). On the other hand, someone who stops, looks both ways, and drives through the red light at an otherwise deserted intersection should not be ticketed just to generate revenue.

So, with a comprehensive DNA database I would favor legislation and perhaps a Supreme Court case or two that would limit government DNA data storage to markers that do not predict for genetic diseases and DNA use to serious crimes and not minor infractions. I would be quite willing to accept these limitations in exchange for a new tool to reduce costs and increase effectiveness of crime prevention and punishment.

Ira Glickstein

JohnS said...

We seem to be in sync. It is difficult to maintain a reasonable level of personal freedom while providing the security, both internal and external, the safety and opportunity we expect of our government in a constantly changing technological environment as our nation faces today.

joel said...

I'm wondering whether rape is being used to create a false sense of urgency for a universal dna data base. Perhaps I'm paranoid, but the use of emergency to accumulate power is becoming increasingly flagrant these days.

From the following web site

I found some interesting facts. One is that the risk of rape is 0.1% per year. Another is that in only one quarter of the cases is the attacker unknown to the victim. Finally, admitted rapists average seven victims apiece. Hence, a data base containing only felons, military, people in sensitive positions (like politicians) would cover a significant portion of the population without encroaching on the privacy of the entire citizenry.

I was in Orleans, France in 1983 when it was discovered that the gendarmery was still keeping records of who and where the Jews in the area were. Its important that we not make it too easy for the government to find and persecute people who rebel. Obama's request for emails of people who speak against health care legislation is symptomatic of how easy it is for government to slip into a "chill free speech" mode. -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Even if you are not paranoid, Joel, it is still possible everyone is against you :^).

I mentioned rape because it was the subject of the recent TV newsmagazine where DNA ID was used to free a non-guilty person and convict the real rapist. Of course, rape is an "urgent" type of crime that garners sympathy, and for good reason.

The low rate you quote of one per thousand PER YEAR means an average women has a nearly one in 15 (7%) chance of being raped in her life. My dear and close women relatives include my wife, three daughters, three granddaughters, a mother, two grandmothers, and a mother-in-law. I also have a several dozen good women friends I have bicycled or kayaked or gone sking with, others with whom I have worked closely, or have had as teachers or students. I don't think it is trivial that, by your statistics, several of them have already been raped or will get raped during their lifetime.

Of course rape is just one example. A universal DNA database would also work against nearly all crimes of violence.

I too am disturbed when a government agency tracks Jews. However, our synagogue publishes a yearly list of member names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails so I guess we are not too worried about that information getting out. Sure, it could be misused someday, but, if and when that day comes, that list will be the least of our troubles.

Yes, had the Bush Administration asked their supporters to turn in emails they received with "fishy" claims about some policy, the major media would have gone ballistic!. President Obama's request has not generated that type of rage. In any case, when someone puts pen to paper (or computer to email or Blog) they should *expect* that it might become public. Free speech is both a right and a responsibility and true patriots do not cower behind trees.

Yes, a universal DNA database would be invaluable to a possible future repressive government. The same is true for auto license plates and registrations, photos on driver's licenses, cell phone records, credit card records, and on and on. Do you want to make all these things anonymous as well?

Ira Glickstein