DNA and the Criminal Justice System

The developments in genetics have posed particular policy challenges in a variety of areas in our society. One of the earliest areas to be affected has been criminal justice, because of the durability and polymorphism of genetic material. Biological material left at a crime scene (e.g., a rape) can thus be remarkably powerful for investigations and in trials. The application of this technology has, for example, led to close to 200 exonerations, as well as thousands of investigatory leads from databases in the US. DNA thus presents a series of policy challenges, from how to learn from errors of the past that DNA has uncovered, to dealing with the potential threat to civil liberties, to the practicalities of how to manage a new and powerful technology within the criminal justice system. I have edited a well-received book on this subject (3), which lays out a wide array of perspectives. My most recent papers look at the potential of using existing DNA databases for the identification of relatives of those in the databases as potential suspects (forthcoming in Science, with collaborators Frederick Bieber and Charles Brenner) and, with Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, an examination of the statutory framework for protecting DNA data held by the state (2). I have also coauthored with Fred Bieber a number of op eds, including on the lessons to be learned from the wrongful conviction of Dennis Maher in Massachusetts (6), on the use of DNA to identify suspects through their relatives’ DNA (5), and concerns raised by a recent DNA dragnet in Massachusetts (4). I am also one of the principals who has organized a series of workshops (supported by a $1m NIH grant), culminating in a national conference, on DNA fingerprinting and civil liberties (7). Finally, I am also the faculty chair of the NSF-funded DNApolicy.net initiative, which offers a web-based forum for peer to peer knowledge among public DNA laboratories (8).

(1) David Lazer, "Finding Criminals Through DNA of Their Relatives," Science 312, June 2, 2006. (with F. Bieber and C. Brenner).

(2) David Lazer, "Statutory Frameworks for Regulating Information Flows:  Drawing Lessons for DNA Data Banks from other Government Data Systems." Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 34, 2006: 366-374. (with V. Mayer-Schoenberger)

(3) David Lazer, The Technology of Justice: DNA and the Criminal Justice System, (MIT press, 2004), including: "Introduction: DNA and the Criminal Justice System," and "DNA and the Criminal Justice System: Consensus and Debate," (with Michelle Meyer).
(Here’s a flyer; also, see reviews in the Journal of Clinical Investigations, Journal of Forensic Sciences and APSA's sponsored Law& Politics Book Review)

(4) Frederick Bieber and David Lazer, "DNA Sweep Must Be Accompanied by Informed Consent," Provincetown Banner, January 20, 2005.

(5) Frederick Bieber and David Lazer, "Guilt by Association?" The New Scientist, September 23, 2004.

(6) Frederick Bieber and David Lazer, "Lessons Learned from a Miscarriage of Justice" Boston Globe, April 12, 2003.

(7) The DNApolicy.net initiative

(8) DNA fingerprinting and civil libertiety - ASLME (American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics)

**(For any of the above articles without a link, please email david_lazer(at)harvard.edu for a PDF or hardcopy)

Concept & Design © Alexander Schellong