Its in the DNA

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

Tissue samples for DNA testing being taken from a body that was exhumed in Srinagar on March 10, 2007.-NISSAR AHMAD

Tissue samples for DNA testing being taken from a body that was exhumed in Srinagar on March 10, 2007.-NISSAR AHMAD

Legislation on DNA profiling, when it comes into force, will be a step in bringing India on a par with the U.S. and the U.K. in the use of DNA testing to tackle crime.

CRIME investigators the world over are agreed that DNA testing is a reliable scientific procedure to establish the identity of an accused. This is especially so in cases where one does not know who the offender is, or when there are several suspects and a rational shortlisting has to be done in order to bring focus to the investigation.

What is most heartening to investigators is that the acceptance of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) evidence by courts has been uniformly high, so much so, that unless there are strong circumstances to prove ones innocence, this piece of scientific evidence becomes almost conclusive. While several countries in the West swear by DNA testing, the experience of the United States and the United Kingdom in this field stand out for their positive features and as models for other countries.

Citing DNA evidence in these two countries has become almost routine. More than the U.S, it is the U.K. police that have been the greater beneficiary of DNA evidence in solving a few high-profile cases that baffled them for long. For instance, the case involving the rape of two teenagers in Canterbury in 1988 had remained a mystery for 13 years. A DNA test on a person arrested in 2001 in Derby on the charges of shoplifting proved his complicity in the Canterbury assault. He was convicted and sentenced to a term of 15 years in prison.

More sensational was the recent sentencing to life of Mark Dixie, 37, father of three from south London, after he was convicted for the rape and murder, in September 2005, of Sally Anne Brown, a model. After arriving at a general profile of the offender, the Croydon Police addressed about 4,000 local people, asking them to volunteer to provide their DNA samples. About 1,500 responded. Dixie, who worked as a chef in a pub, was not one of them. Scared of being found out, he fled to Amsterdam. His arrest on June 15, 2006, after a brawl in a bar, led to a sample being taken from him. The forensic report showed that this DNA matched with that in the semen discovered on Browns body and proved his guilt beyond doubt. Enquiries showed that Dixie was a dangerous sexual predator with several convictions.

In the equally outrageous murder of five sex workers near Ipswich, Suffolk, in 2006, the fate of the serial killer, truck driver Steve Wright, was sealed on the basis of DNA evidence. Wright was convicted in February this year and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that he never be paroled. Can there be a stronger case for mandatory DNA testing of every person arrested by the police while investigating offences against the body?

Fair Test

The remarkable feature of the U.S. scene, slightly in contrast to that of the U.K.s, is that DNA evidence is cited not merely by the prosecution to drive home guilt but also by the defence to exculpate those wrongly charged with a criminal offence. The number of prisoners on death row who have been released (after several years in custody) on the basis of DNA analysis is growing in the U.S. The fact that the test can be used both by the prosecution and the defence indicates that it is a reasonably fair test, which, if correctly administered, can be a great aid to courts to arrive at the truth. Therefore, the stakes are high for all criminal justice agencies and the community at large to ensure that DNA examination is done professionally, without fear or favour.

Facilities for the collection and laboratory examination of DNA samples have been expanding in both countries. Despite this, there is a huge backlog. What is significant is the substantial progress in both countries in building a national DNA database. The U.K. has done far better than the U.S. in that its database covers about 5 per cent of the population. The U.S. achievement has been just 0.5 per cent, possibly because of the nearly five times larger population.

In the U.K., the momentum has been sustained over the years since the national database went live in 1995. Initially, only convicted offenders figured in it. Whatever samples were taken of suspects during investigation had to be destroyed following their discharge by either the police or the courts. A new law in 2001 permitted, for the first time, the retention of profiles of offenders of certain crimes.

In 2004, there was a further change in law, which allowed the police to take samples of anyone arrested for a recordable offence and detained in a police station. The Public Order and Criminal Justice Act (Scotland) of 2006 brought in major changes whereby the police could hold on to the DNA profile of a person accused of sexual or violent offences for three years, even if that person was acquitted. This has led to a major debate in the country, invoking privacy and human rights issues.

A few of the affected persons some involved in minor offences have gone to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, challenging the validity of the Act. These include a 72-year-old former merchant seaman who claims he had been wrongly arrested for criminal damage to an automobile.

Indian Experience

The Indian experience has been mixed. In a few sensational cases, the police, especially the Central Bureau of Investigation, have no doubt resorted to DNA evidence and have also succeeded. The problem is one of expanding laboratory facilities and training forensic personnel in the collection and forwarding of samples without damage to assigned laboratories.

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, is the principal laboratory that has built a credible record for accuracy and professionalism. The Central Forensic Laboratory (CFL) in Delhi and a few State laboratories are fast catching up. But they have a long way to go. What is more important is the provision of a legal framework to build a national database and administer it in conformity with international standards.

I am happy to have laid my hands on a draft Bill that has been prepared by the Ministry of Science and Technology. When approved by Parliament it will be known as the DNA profiling act. It is an elaborate piece of legislation that contemplates the creation of a DNA profiling board that would draw from various disciplines, including molecular biology, human genetics, bioethics, law and criminal justice.

Headed by a renowned molecular biologist, the board would make recommendations in the areas of maximising the use of DNA techniques and technologies in the administration of justice, as also identifying scientific advances to assist law enforcement agencies. In addition to advising all concerned on how to establish and manage DNA laboratories, the board would lay down standards and procedures for the creation of databases and for their functioning.

Advice to all agencies on ethical and human rights issues surrounding DNA profiling would also be part of the boards charter. It will be a powerful body in the sense that without its written approval no laboratory in the country would undertake any DNA procedure. Most significantly, Chapter VII of the Bill deals extensively with a national data bank and State data banks. I am impressed with the provision for a post-conviction DNA testing at the request of an individual undergoing a sentence of imprisonment or facing the death penalty. Chapter IX lists offences and penalties involved in unauthorised access or disclosure or use of DNA database and forensic material. A term of imprisonment, or fine, or both, will be the penalties.

In my view, the DNA Profiling Act, when it comes into force, will be a major move forward in bringing India on a par with countries that have used DNA testing with astounding results. We just cannot lag behind. The Act will bring a greater sense of responsibility to investigators, besides giving them a powerful tool for cracking difficult crime. A greater faith in scientific investigation and disdain for the use of the third degree will be incidental benefits.

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