It's Evident


Opinion: DNA
Marian Daggett, Law & Science Fellow

The advances in DNA technology that have come to fruition in the past ten years are incredible. Not only have we seen the thirteen-year genome project complete the sequencing in 2003 of the three million base pairs composing human DNA,1 but DNA technology continues to alter and advance forensic evidence examination in the following ways:
  1. tools have been designed to amplify and analyze strands of degraded DNA;2
  2. an international collaborative project is underway to complete the mapping of DNA single nucleotide polymorphisms and to find genetic correlations within typical genome sequence nucleotide variations; 3
  3. successful analyses of remains from large-scale national disasters have expanded the parameter of DNA forensics applications; 4
  4. laboratory analysts have discovered the increasingly accurate capabilities of mitochondrial DNA;5
  5. a national DNA database system, Combined DNA Index System, CODIS,6 enables the coordination between state DNA database collection, while nearly every state has created a complex set of DNA database legislation, allowing for the forensic collection of DNA; 7
  6. a federal initiative, originating from the Justice for All Act of 2004,8 ensures fairness throughout the judicial processes via proper collection, prompt access to testing, and accurate laboratory analysis of DNA evidence.9
In the very same last ten years, since the brutal murder of the delicate beauty queen, six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado,10 DNA tests have become so decisive that the guilt or innocence of a suspect can be resolved with a single swab. If viable DNA evidence is available to submit to laboratory analysis, then prosecutors have a much better chance of supporting the charges in a case.11 Innocent people are no longer sentenced to death on false testimony, their lives traded in a legal game of plea-bargains and conjured stories.12

But in the case of John Mark Karr, the desire was to turn back time and stop scientific discoveries dead. It is tempting to dismiss the ease of DNA identification as an unnecessary piece of evidence in this case despite the rapidity of advancing technological and scientific forensic analyses. How convenient it would have been to disregard DNA evidence and take the freely-offered murder confession of a known sexual deviant- the man who taught vulnerable children,13 14 the same man who fled charges of child pornography in California - and put him away for the rest of his life.

Why did he confess to such a notorious crime? Was it for "fifteen minutes of fame"? People with psychological problems and delusions of grandeur often have the need for public gratification through notoriety, and what better way than to be the focus of international news across the globe.15 16 Not only did he draw the attention of media around the world, but John Mark Karr cost the legal system in Boulder, Colorado, almost ten-thousand dollars to bring him back from Thailand. This was billed as the most expensive DNA test in the state’s history.17 The reporters exerted so much energy on this case that they went so far as to debate who would defend him. It would have added insult to injury if Colorado spent thousands more dollars to use its legal defense system to defend this hoax of a defendant.18 After two weeks of media frenzy, his confession merely took the legal system and the press for a ride – a roller-coaster filled with hope and anxiety that the ten-year-old case would be closed.19 If only the confession could have been taken on its merits, then the family would have been able to move on, and the public would have resolved the tedious crime investigation that continues to stretch over a decade.

Now what with the exoneration of John Mark Karr? DNA evidence did not prove his guilt.20 21 22 This case could be viewed as a legal embarrassment for years to come.23 If found guilty of child pornography charges, anything short of conviction and a long prison term will be a disgrace to the integrity of the legal system in the United States and around the world.


1U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Human Genome Project Information (available online at Human Genome Project) Genome Programs, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S. Department of Energy (available online at U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science)
2P. Grubwieser et al, A New 'MiniSTR-Multiplex' Displaying Reduced Amplicon Lengths For The Analysis Of Degraded DNA, 120 INT'L J. LEGAL MED. 115, Issue 2, March 2006 (available online at SpringerLink)
3International HapMap Project Christen Brownlee, SNPs Ahoy!, 168 SCIENCE NEWS 277, No. 18, Oct. 29, 2005, (available online at Science News)
4Leslie G. Biesecker et al, Epidemiology: DNA Identifications After the 9/11 World Trade Center Attack, 310 Science 1122, Issue 5751, Nov. 18, 2005 (available online at Science Magazine); DNA Identification in Mass Fatality Incidents (available online at DNA Identification in Mass Fatality Incidents)
5Paul Gianelli, Mitochondrial DNA, 19 CRIM. JUST. 54, No. 4, Winter 2005, (available online at Mitochondrial DNA); V. Castella et al, Forensic Identification of Urine Samples: A Comparison Between Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA Markers, 120 INT'L J. LEGAL MED. 67, Issue 2, March 2006 (available online at SpringerLink)
6FBI, Combined DNA Index System (available online at Combined DNA Index System )
7ASLME, Special Report: Survey of DNA Database Statutes, April 2006 (available online at Special Report: Survey of DNA Database Statutes)
8Justice for All Act of 2004, H.R.5107 (available online at Justice for All Act of 2004)
9The President’s DNA Initiative(available online at The President’s DNA Initiative)
10Ralph Blumenthal & Dan Frosch, Suspect in Ramsey Killing Returns to the U.S., N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 21, 2006, at A10 (available online at NY Times)
11Editorial, Duke and DNA Evidence, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 29, 2006, at A18 (available online at NY Times)
12Leonard Pitts, Hanged With a Rope of Poor 'Evidence': So I Read in the Paper Where Another Man is About to be Lied to Death, FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM, Aug. 22, 2006, at B9 (available online at FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM)
13Randal C. Archibold, Brenda Goodman, Kirk Johnson, Carolyn Marshall, Suspect in Ramsey Killing Agrees to Colorado Transfer, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 23, 2006, at A17 (available online at NY Times )
14Andrew Murr, Jennifer Ordonez, Paul Tolme, Melanie Lasoff Levs, Frederick Burger, Evidence of Obsession: New Clues About Karr's Lurid Fascination with the Murder of JonBenet, NEWSWEEK, Sept. 4, 2006, at 51 (available online at Newsweek)
15Jill Porter, Media Technology: Quick to Judge & Exonerate: Let the Self-Flagellation Begin, PHILA. DAILY NEWS, Aug. 30, 2006, at 8 (available online at PHILA. DAILY NEWS)
16Katherine Ramsland, Grim Fantasies Could Be a Sign, PHILA. INQUIRER, Sept. 2, 2006, at C07 (available online at PHILA. INQUIRER)
17Staff Writer, DA Defends JonBenet Arrest, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, Aug. 30, 2006, at A3 (available online at PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE)
18Associated Press, Who Will Defend Karr Still Not Clear, NEWSDAY, Aug. 23, 2006, at A27 (available online at Newsday)
19Associated Press, And in the End, Karr Takes Everyone For a Ride: Just as Before, Law Enforcement Proved Overeager, NEWSDAY, Aug. 29, 2006, at A04 (available online at Newsday)
20Kirk Johnson, DNA Tests Torpedo JonBenet Charges, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, Aug. 29, 2006, at A1 (available online at Post-Gazette)
21Jeff Kass, Case Fails on DNA Match, NEWSDAY, Aug. 29, 2006, at A04 (available online at Newsday)
22Kirk Johnson, Katie Kelley, Carolyn Marshall, Suspect Cleared in Ramsey Case After DNA Tests, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 29, 2006, at A1 (available online at NY Times)
23Julie Bosman, Reflection and Red Faces after the Ramsey Storm, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 30, 2006, at E2 (available online at NY Times)