DNA testing has overthrown the way police collect evidence in a number of criminal cases, especially rape and murder and consequently had a large impact on many past cases. However there are many disadvantages to DNA testing, such as a challenge of accuracy, the costs of DNA testing and the possible misuse of DNA. The prospect of a national DNA database in Australia has been heavily criticised with complaints of invasion of privacy and stigma against those with terminal diseases. Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA as it is most commonly known, is a strand of molecules found within the cell nucleus of all living things. It is called a "genetic fingerprint" because each is different to the other and everyone, apart from identical twins, have different DNA patterns. To extract DNA from a human is a simple process; it can be extracted from body tissue, such as the scraping of the inside of the mouth, or through blood.
DNA testing was first used in a criminal case in the United Kingdom in 1987. DNA evidence in courts has been widely accepted since then and is seen as a reliable source, due to the high accuracy of the results. However many people disagree to the use of DNA results. Many question the accuracy of DNA evidence, as only DNA segments are used in databases in contrast to the entire DNA strand.
The possibility of DNA testing being inaccurate is very low, however, except in cases of identical twins who posses the exact genetic makeup. DNA testing is also very expensive, and the accused might not be able to afford a DNA expert to defend him or herself in court if DNA evidence is used against them, and if DNA experts are hired for them, there is a possibility of bias. Another downside to the use of DNA is the misuse of results. Victims with AIDS feel that they might be stigmatized if their DNA is stored in a national database and it could be used against them. The prospect of a genetic database in Australia has been raised recently.
The federal police are pushing for a national database to help solve crime and are asking for legislation to be allowed to collect DNA samples from people accused, or suspected of committing an offence (the Australian, 06.12. 1997 see appendix one) The proposal has sparked a moral dilemma. Victoria has had a DNA database since 1992 with the reasoning that, if a suspect is cleared, their DNA must be erased off the list. However, recently Victorian government has allowed police to collect samples from more suspected criminals, not just those accused of murder, serious assault or rape. Now they are allowed to collect from those accused of drug trafficking, arson causing death and aggravated burglary. Privacy is also another big issue surrounding the plans for a database.
Chairman of the New South Wales privacy council says that the prospect of a genetic database is a "cavalier disregard for people's privacy " Recently it was passed that all states, apart from Western Australia have the right to compose a DNA database (The Sydney Telegraph, 22.04. 2001 see appendix two) and already there had been a few flaws found. With individual states having their own databases, it makes it possible for criminals to cross state borders and not be found. Federal Justice Minister Chris Ellison said that "you want to have a national database which is one size fits all" he also predicted that 30% of crime scene material will match with a record on the database, based on results of the same kind from New Zealand.
One case of successful DNA data basing come from a small town in New South Wales called Wee Waa (The Advertiser, Adelaide 21.10. 2000 see appendix three) Police carried out DNA testing on all the males of the town, in hope to find the rapist of a 91 year old woman. Stephen James Boney, 44, was asked to submit a sample, but he refused to do so. After a moments thought, he changed his mind and allowed the police to take a routine scraping of the inside of his mouth.
Overwhelmed with guilt, he confessed to his wife and daughter and then made his way to the police to make a confession of his crime. Mr. Boney was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment with a minimum eight-year term, and was also sentenced to four years for breaking and entering with intent to steal. Police commended the DNA testing on this, saying that it flushed out the guilty. DNA testing involves many moral and ethical dilemmas, such as who it actually belongs to, the accuracy of the results, the costs, the possibility of misuse.
But it can also be seen that, in the Wee Waa case, DNA data basing is a successful tool in solving cases. The prospect of a national DNA database is a good thing, because it will help irradiate crime. In Britain, since the use of a genetic database, the clean up rates of crime has doubled and even tripled in some cases. It will mean a safer community, and help put to rest in the minds of victim's family and friends that the offender is highly likely to be found and prosecuted. And even though it is expensive, it will last for years to come.
DNA Fingerprinting" (1997) Encarta Encyclopaedia 1997"Blood truths, Why the Police Want to Tag Your Body" Helen O'Neill, The Australian 6.
12. 1997"Flaws in New DNA Database " Simon Kearny, The Sydney Telegraph 22.
04. 2001"Jail For Rapist Caught by DNA " No ula Tsavdaridis, The Advertiser 21.