Since its discovery, DNA was utilized in several ways. Except for the obvious usage in the field of genetics, its unique properties allowed it to be used in forensics as means of identification. Known as DNA profiling and sometimes DNA fingerprinting, the technique allows for an unusually precise and reliable matching process. While the technique has its limitations, it has already served as a turning point in solving several cases. One of the most prominent instances is the case of Roy Criner, a Texas logger who was wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a girl and sentenced to serve 99 years in prison. The case was highly controversial and had several weak points. Nevertheless, it was only after a succession of DNA tests that the court finally concluded that Criner was not guilty of either crime. While the case is neither the first instance of the convict being exonerated based on DNA profiling nor the most highlighted by the media, it still gives several valuable insights regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the testing process and, more importantly, legal issues about the usage of the DNA material in courts.
DNA profiling is based on the fact that deoxyribonucleic acid molecules have a segment that is extremely unlikely to be exact in two different human beings. Thus, as soon as the technology was available to match two different DNA samples, it was inevitable that the technique was utilized in a criminal investigation. DNA has several advantages over other evidence. First, it does not require a specific sample: any material can be used, including blood, skin, hair, saliva, and sperm, among others. This also means that collecting the material from the suspect is less intrusive and time-consuming, allowing for the quick mass sampling of the groups of people. Additionally, the size of the samples is fairly small, allowing to analyze the evidence that is otherwise only marginally useful for the proceedings. Finally, the DNA is the kind of evidence that excludes tampering – at least, on the level of laboratory analysis. However, these advantages only apply in the case of the correct and appropriate procedure.
The DNA material is highly prone to mishandling: the collected samples can deteriorate if not stored correctly. Besides, the process relies heavily on the correct collection, as it is uncommon for the laboratory staff to introduce foreign DNA material to the sample and produce the incorrect results. What further complicates the matter is that such results are not easily falsifiable, which may lead to a situation where the case is moving in the wrong direction from the beginning (Primorac & Schanfield, 2014). Finally, while the data obtained by the analysis is highly precise, it is usually presented in a visual format and was analyzed visually by the laboratory staff instead of the more accurate digital data. This theoretically may have led to the situation where two similar readings were treated as a match misrepresented by the limitations of the visual aids, while in fact such similarity can not be used as a proof of match.
While the latter has been since addressed, all the other difficulties of DNA fingerprinting pertain the procedure to this day to a varying degree. Besides, the young age of the phenomenon means that the field is constantly developing, and the standards for it are far from being set. As a result, the legal system was slow on utilizing the evidence obtained by the DNA analysis. He validity of the profiling was, and still is, viewed differently in different states, and defense lawyers took advantage of the court’s unfamiliarity with the procedure to discard or discredit the results. All of these shortcomings are present to some degree in the case of the murder of Deanna Ogg, a student from New Caney, Texas.
The body of Ogg was found in the woods near the logging facility on September 27, 1986. Ogg was severely beaten and stabbed and was later determined to be sexually assaulted. The interviews of locals revealed that Roy Criner has recently bragged to his friends about assaulting a hitchhiker. While the testimonies were contradicting each other as well as the known facts about the case and none of them mentioned Criner allude to the killing or the actual sexual assault, he was charged with murder. After being acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence, he was then tried for aggravated sexual assault and, in 1990, sentenced to 99 years in prison (Chrisitian, 2001). By this time, the DNA profiling was already a relatively established procedure, with the cases of conviction and exoneration on the basis of DNA evidence preceding three and one years, respectively. Thus, the defense attorneys recommended Criner to apply for the testing. The semen found on the scene was matched to the Criner’s genetic material. The analysis was performed by Cellmark, a private laboratory (Judge Charles Baird, 2002).
The process of collecting and handling data was supervised and met the requirements, so the admissibility of evidence was not questioned. However, the defense faced another unexpected difficulty. The results have shown no match between the semen found on the victim and Criner’s DNA. This, however, was not perceived by the jury to be substantial evidence for the convict’s innocence. According to Judge Keller, the absence of the defendant’s DNA on the crime scene did not imply his lack of involvement in the act, “just like the absence of fingerprints right here doesn’t show that I didn’t touch the chair.” (Chrisitian, 2001) On these grounds, Roy was denied another trial. The defense was understandably not satisfied with the outcome and advised the defendant to appeal for the second time, this time analyzing all the possible evidence present on the scene to exclude misinterpretation. This time, the analysis was performed by the Texas Department of Public Safety lab, a different organization with equally high standards (Judge Charles Baird, 2002). The process was again conducted in accordance with the requirements, so no doubt arose regarding the validity of the results. This time, the saliva sample from the cigarette butt found at the scene was analyzed and matched to the semen data. The samples matched. This proved that Ogg’s partner was present at the crime scene, which made an earlier assertion that Criner has conducted an assault sufficiently less likely. As a result, Roy was finally exonerated in 2000, after serving ten years for the crime he did not commit.
While DNA has obviously played a decisive role in the case, the case could possibly be solved without the profiling. The case was permeated with inadequate evidence and faulty assertions. The co-workers’ testimonies against Criner were filled with inconsistencies and did not directly prove his guilt. The physical evidence was inconclusive: the screwdriver, which was suggested as a weapon, was tested and proven as unrelated to the crime, but the results were omitted from the hearings. Ultimately, no evidence except for the testimonies linked him to the case. Additionally, the case was slowly gaining media attention. The combination of these factors is extremely favorable to build the defense upon, so it seems likely that the sentence could be overturned based solely on the lack of evidence. However, even with the help of DNA fingerprints, it took ten years to succeed. Thus, two possible alterations could be done to strengthen the investigation.
First, the DNA testing needs to account for all possible factors at once. The absence of evidence does not necessarily imply the evidence of absence, as illustrated by Judge Keller. Thus, the investigators needed to think of all the possible match combinations that could conclusively disprove Criner’s involvement. Second, the requirements for conclusive results need to be established to eliminate such discrepancies. While, admittedly, this is not decided solely by the investigators, such common ground would sufficiently shorten the time spent in jail by an innocent person.
The DNA profiling is a powerful forensic tool. While it has its shortcomings and should be treated with the utmost responsibility, it produces strong and decisive evidence. However, as was illustrated by the Roy Criner’s case, the difficulties persist even beyond the technical part. In other words, while the science has made sufficient progress in the profiling, the legal side of using the results in court is still vague. As a result, even the appropriate and admissible test results, which, in this case, were confirmed twice by two independent parties, can be discarded on the grounds of being inconclusive. Thus, the legal system should acknowledge the problem and take necessary steps to make use of this invaluable source rather than dismiss it.
Chrisitian, K. (2001). And the DNA shall set you free: issues surrounding postconviction DNA evidence and the pursuit of innocence. Ohio State Law Journal, 62(3), 1195-1241.
Judge Charles Baird (2002). Web.
Primorac, D, & Schanfield, M. (2014). Forensic DNA applications: an interdisciplinary perspective. Boca RAton, FL: CRC Press.