Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On DNA testing

It's called the CSI syndrome: Many Americans believe that DNA has become this failsafe that convicts the guilty and frees the innocent.

Were it only that simple. The truth is, state prosecutors can often overwhelm defense attorneys with their expert witnesses and analysis of DNA evidence. Too, many crime labs have come under fire for "drylabbing" results, which means not doing the actual testing but concluding that the DNA evidence shows what the state wants it to show. This has happened in Harris County, Texas and in Oklahoma. Other problems have surfaced with labs in Virginia, North Carolina and with the FBI's national crime lab. And I think I am leaving some states out.

Now comes Winston-Salem North Carolina columnist John Railey, who writes, "At its best, DNA testing can free the wrongly imprisoned and catch the killers and rapists who walk among us. But it's only as good as we demand that it be."

An excerpt:

Yet DNA testing is only as good as the humans who carry it out. And so it is that we have mistakes such as those made by Brenda Bissette. While with the State Bureau of Investigation, Bissette did DNA testing in 2003 that supposedly matched blood from Leslie Lincoln to blood from the scene where her mother was slain in Greenville. Now, thanks to challenges from a sharp defense attorney, SBI officials say that Bissette mislabeled the test tubes that she used to extract DNA from the blood samples. Subsequent testing failed to match Lincoln to blood from the scene.

Bissette was removed from her lab duties before she retired. Her files for all 50 DNA cases that she handled since 2002 are being reviewed.

And Leslie Lincoln still sits in a Greenville jail, charged with killing her mother, although prosecutors did drop plans to pursue the death penalty after the DNA mess was finally straightened out. The DNA test may well have been the strongest evidence against her. Now, you tend to wonder about the whole case, and wonder if one more killer is still out there somewhere.

To read the entire column, go here.

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