As evidenced by the scintillating discussion about my last post on DNA (none), one can surmise that perhaps DNA is not the most fascinating table conversation in the world. A pity, actually, because it really is so fascinating, and there is actually quite a bit of controversy about it. The controversy is not about it's existence (except among the anti-evolution crowd, but that's a different story), but rather about the manner that it's used.
Since my post on DNA, I've been mildly bombarded by people on a few sides of this issue.
The most gratifying are those who are actually experts in the field who complimented me about breaking the subject down somewhat well (or poorly, but at least not too badly, or, at the very least, for simply addressing the subject, but, whatever). I also got emails from people who recommended that I attend a certain conference on the subject (in Dayton, but more information on that later). Finally, and most importantly, I got a couple of emails from defense lawyers who have huge DNA cases who know nothing about DNA, and want to learn. Of course, my post is a bad place to learn, but it's a good place to start.
Now, for Dayton. On August 15-17, Forensic Bioinformatics is hosting their annual DNA conference in Dayton. I have never been to this one, but I've been to another in this series, and it is really good stuff. It is meant for lawyers to learn about what DNA is, how it is used in criminal cases, and how to handle these types of cases. If you are a defense lawyer with a DNA case, you would be remiss not to attend this, or another conference like it. This stuff does not just come to you, you have to go out and learn it. I can tell you from my own experience that you will come away from a conference like this with a vast amount of knowledge.
There are a couple of Public Defender's offices that are serious about teaching their people (or some of their people, so they can then teach others) about DNA, which is becoming a greater and greater part of the criminal practice. There are other PD offices with their heads in the sand, not willing to put out the resources or change things up enough in their offices to get off their duff and send their lawyers to conferences like this. I can tell you this, having gone through this before, and seeing the lawyers and scientists who run these seminars, you will be much more competent to handle a DNA case after going to this. I will also say this, those PD offices who are unwilling to devote the resources to have their lawyers learn this properly are courting ineffective assistance of counsel claims, lawsuits, and facing the reality that our client's criticisms that we are dump trucks is true. So, defense lawyers, sign up if you can, you owe it to your career and your clients.
Dan Krane, of Forensic Bioinformatics, wrote to me about an interesting issue that is so obvious, it should be basic. The problem of DNA labs knowing the profile of the suspect they're being asked if the evidence matches.
I will blog on this later, but consider this. DNA analysis requires opinions to be given. Analysts have to give opinions about what the readings of a sample are, and sometimes they have to make conclusions not based on hard science about whether something that shows up is DNA or just "stutter" (basically a false reading that looks like DNA). Now, this may seem obvious, because we're talking about science here (BTW - There's no such thing as obvious, science, and police labs - it always defies rational explanation the way real scientists will bend the rules at the behest of the police), but don't you think that these scientists, looking out for the truth, should not be influenced by the suspect's profile when making a conclusion about the profile on the sample from the crime scene?
That's right, it sounds obvious, don't have the (presumed) answer in your hands while you're doing scientific analysis that also requires a little bit of opinion in the analysis.
Now, as I said, I will blog on this more later, but this goes back to that expedience desired by law enforcement to bulldoze over standards and truth in the desire to get an easy conviction. You see it from the police when they refuse to video or audio record conversations - such as between decoy cops and potential drug buyers, or prostitution johns. You see it when they refuse to video tape the alleged drugs sales they set themselves up to watch, and bust people, and convict them just on the strength of their testimony. In other words, you see science subverted in the same manner you see justice subverted in so many other ways in the criminal justice system.
More on this later, but this is why you lawyers need to attend conferences like this Dayton one.
Go to it, and let me know how it was. Unfortunately, I cannot go this year.