Has our reverence for DNA gone too far?

A rape victim lobbies for mandatory DNA testing of anyone arrested for a violent crime.


James Hannaham
May 13, 2008 5:55PM (UTC)

"Those who are innocent have nothing to fear," says Laura Neuman, a Maryland rape victim whose attacker, Alphonso Hill, might have been caught much earlier than the 20 years it took if his DNA profile had been on record. According to CNN.com, Neuman has become a fierce lobbyist for a law that would make it mandatory for police to take DNA samples from anyone arrested for a violent crime.

Ten states already require DNA collection for certain felony arrests, and two more states will follow next year. While it might be tempting to embrace anything that would help catch a rapist as soon as possible, it's also difficult to ignore a certain Orwellian miasma arising from the proposition of such widespread swatching. Those who are innocent, it turns out, have always had something to fear -- the fact that the system doesn't always work in their favor. Note that this law requires people who have only been arrested for violent crimes, not those who've been convicted in a court of law, to scrape their cheeks for the police.

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As painful as it may be for a victim to await a capture and a conviction, it is more important to find out the truth than to invite additional pain and chaos by nabbing the first likely suspect and railroading him into the clink. In the service of catching that creep lickety-split, officers do occasionally arrest the wrong guy. The ACLU is predictably up in arms about these laws, arguing that DNA is a far more personal marker than fingerprints and that racial profiling is inevitable. Suspects cleared of state charges can have their records destroyed, but on a federal level, they'd be required to make a "formal request."

The erasure clause, in fact, may be the rub. Why, if innocents have nothing to fear, is it assumed that they'd want to expunge their DNA record from the files? Why doesn't Neuman argue that everyone's DNA should be put on file? That would be the most effective strategy, since it would enable the police to catch first-time sex offenders with no criminal record at all. Lawmakers seem to be making a possibly facile distinction between "criminals" and "us." If there's anyone with enough faith in the criminal justice system to make DNA records mandatory for all, please step forward.

Perhaps Neuman, and a lot of us, have put too much confidence in high-tech forensic science. DNA profiling is a fantastic tool for law enforcement and has solved a lot of cases, but all those shows like "CSI," "Dead Men Talking" and "Cold Case Files" have romanticized its potential, making us assume that DNA profiling is infallible. Evidence can still be tampered with. People can still be framed -- in fact, our blind faith in genetic data might make such a practice more feasible. As a tool, it is only as good as the humans who use it.


James Hannaham

James Hannaham is a staff writer at Salon.

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