Judicial & Legal History of DNA Evidence in US Courts
· The First State & Federal Court Which Accepted DNA Admissibility
- The first state appellate court decision to uphold the admission of DNA evidence was in 1988 (Andrews v. Florida.) In this case, Andrews was suspected of more than 20 sexual assaults. Scientists collected the semen from the crime scene and connected it with the DNA of the perpetrator. At preliminary trials, he was convicted of rape and assault and given a sentence of 22 years but afterward when his DNA matched the crime scenes of other previous victims, his sentence was expanded to 100 years.
- The first major federal court decision to uphold the admission of DNA evidence was in 1992 (U.S. v. Jakobetz.) In this case, Randolph Jakobetz, a truck driver, was suspected of kidnapping and raping a Vermont woman in a semi-trailer truck. Police looked through the trailer that Jakobetz had hauled on the night of the crime and found hairs matching those of the victim. After arresting Jakobetz, law enforcement officers sent a sample of his blood to the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., for DNA investigation and comparison with DNA taken from semen found in the victim shortly after the crime. At Jakobetz’s trial, an FBI expert affirmed that the blood and semen samples were a “match.” Based on this and other strong evidence, Jakobetz was convicted and sentenced to almost 30 years in jail.
· Admissibility Standards
In general, two standards are used to judge the admissibility of novel scientific evidence.
- Frye standard
- Daubert standard
|Frye Standard||Daubert Standard|
|Origin||→The Frye standard originates from a 1923 case, Frye v. United States||→ The Daubert standard is more latest, derived from the 1993 case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals|
|Court Ruling||→ The court ruled that to be admissible, scientific evidence must be adequately established to have acquired general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.||→ The Supreme Court went ahead of Frye to say that scientific evidence must have sufficient validity and reliability to be admitted as relevant “scientific knowledge” that would “assist the trier of fact.”|
· The Emergence of DNA Databases
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) introduced the “Combined DNA Index System” (CODIS) forensic DNA database mandated by the federal DNA Identification Act of 1994. It not only helps law enforcement identify perpetrators or link serial crimes but also helped affirm a suspect’s innocence.
· Development of All Felons Databases
In 1990, Virginia became the first state to pass an all felons’ law that entailed DNA databases from anyone convicted of a felony. In 2002, the first state to execute a criminal convicted of murder and rape based on a “cold-hit” was Virginia. By 1991, six states had “all felons’ databases” and today every US state has a database of criminal offenders’ DNA profiles.
· Post-Conviction DNA Testing
Just as recent legislation has sustained the increased use of DNA for prosecution, legislation to protect the falsely convicted has also been gaining ground in recent years. The Innocence Project was established in 1992 to support the privilege of convicted felons who maintain their innocence and has been a driving force in supporting legislation in this field. Most states have since passed legal provisions for post-conviction DNA testing.
· Justice for All Act
On October 30, 2004, President George Bush signed the Justice for All Act, which significantly enhanced funding and guidelines for the use of DNA technology in the judicial process.
How Reliable Is DNA Evidence in Court Rooms?
DNA evidence is extremely useful and accurate if it’s properly handled and analyzed. The chances of one person’s DNA profile matching another individual are negligible (about one in a billion by estimate.)
Compared to eyewitness testimony and fingerprinting, which both can have inherent errors and inaccuracies, DNA evidence is a highly valuable approach to matching a suspect to biological samples collected during a criminal investigation. DNA evidence is also highly useful to determine the biological relationship between parent and child (paternity/legitimacy cases.) The results of the paternity DNA test can be used as evidence in legal courtrooms for child custody, inheritance/ancestral property disputes, immigration purposes, child swapping conspiracies, and to prove fidelity between marriages.
DNA evidence is more reliable than eyewitness accounts and fingerprints, and even was proved beyond doubt in rape, homicide cases, and paternity issues. Due to DNA evidence accuracy, criminal lawyers increasingly rely on it to charge or exonerate a defendant. In addition, it can be used to reevaluate prior convictions to determine innocence.
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