Open Up DNA Databases To All

by Diane Dimond on January 28, 2013

Justice For All, Right?

The scene: A criminal courtroom anywhere in America.

The players: A judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney and the accused.

The assumption: That all parties involved enjoy a level playing toward the twin goals of discovering the truth and finding justice.

The fact: In many criminal cases the prosecution holds the key to what could be the most important evidence of the trial – DNA. Prosecutors in most states have exclusive access to CODIS, the national database of more than 11 million DNA samples, which is considered to be the gold standard in forensic-based investigations. CODIS is used in two ways – to match a known suspect to a crime or to find an unknown suspect who may have been entered into the system years earlier.

DNA Computer Checks – Easy, Fast, Accurate

Surely, you’ve seen TV cop shows where a lab technician simply punches a bit of information into their computer to try to get a match with DNA gathered from a crime scene. CODIS results are easy to get, remarkably fast and are widely considered to be extremely accurate.

So, why doesn’t everyone get to have access to the system? Consider that we, the American taxpayers, have annually paid out multi-millions of dollars (ever since The DNA Identification Act was passed in 1994) to build this massive database of DNA samples. But if we find ourselves in trouble and our lawyer discovers DNA evidence that needs to be check out – we’re not allowed access? Does that sound fair to you?

Over the last decade or so there have been dozens upon dozens of reported cases where an attorney for a convict – a person who has always maintained their innocence – has dug deep into the case file and found untested DNA that could exonerate their client. But often when they return to court to ask for the right to test the new evidence they are told judges don’t have the power to force prosecutors to re-test. Prosecutors are duty bound to turn over to the defense all the evidence they have but sometimes they fail to do so. Sometimes they don’t even realize what their own investigators have missed.

Currently there are only nine states with laws that grant defense attorneys access to DNA databases. I think the rest of the country should join Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. That one side gets to keep such important information all to itself is not the level playing field our criminal justice system demands.

More than 11 million DNA Samples Now on File

Almost every state has a law permitting some post-conviction DNA testing (although the Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that it is not a constitutional right) but it is done at the discretion of the prosecutor and they very rarely jump at the chance to re-open a convict’s case. Each of them would likely declare that they are in the business of “finding justice” yet there are cases on record where, to site just one, a new DNA test showed the semen found in a 16 year old rape victim did not match the Long Island, New York man convicted of the crime. Well after the revelation the prosecutor continued to insist he had convicted the right man and that the girl had engaged in consensual sex earlier in the day. The victim’s mother and best friend swear she was a virgin.

As University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett says, “(Prosecutors) are attached to their convictions, and they don’t want to see their work called into question.” Hey, who wants to take one out of their own win column, right?

Now look, I’m not naive enough to think that every defense attorney petitioning for a new DNA test will be on the up-and-up. Yes, some might be on a fishing expedition on behalf of their client. But, as with everything in the justice system, standards can be established for re-testing and a balance sheet can be kept of offending attorneys. Believe me, none of them want to be reported to their state’s ethics board for reprimand or suspension.

Government and judicial watchdog groups maintain that hundreds and maybe thousands of prisoners could substantiate their innocence if only they could tap the CODIS system. Some of the convicts say they falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit after being deprived of sleep and enduring day-long interrogation sessions. (This happens more often than you think.) Other prisoners maintain they were wrongly convicted and just want a chance to prove it.

Every DNA Strand Tells A Different Story

Groups like The Innocence Project estimate that in the last 15 years some 300 prisoners have been given access to DNA databases and won their freedom.

I cannot confirm the 300 figure but what if someone you loved was unfairly convicted – wouldn’t you want them to have every chance to prove their innocence? It might cost a bit more to fully open the data base to both sides but if it frees innocent people isn’t it worth it?

It won’t surprise you to learn that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is all for the idea of opening up the CODIS system. The group’s president, Steven Benjamin, says, “Science doesn’t belong to the government, but they act like it does.” But guess what? Even the National District Attorneys Association agrees with the idea. NDAA’s executive director Scott Burns, has said, “It seems like there should be laws for it, and I agree that the defense should be given the information.”

Well, okay then. Let’s really start leveling the playing field, shall we?



{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Facebook Friend GHG Mitte writes;

“Ghg wrote: “What is happening Diane Dimond in this country to “equal protection”, “due process”, not to mention transparency and gov oversight regarding prosecutorial misconduct, and worse, is chilling…Little by little…”


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Mike Lucas,

“Amazing! Another article by someone who feels the need to address the rights of these poor individuals that continue to walk the streets and attack the innocent! Would you ever stop and spend a few minutes thinking about the innocent people that are attacked, abused, robbed, raped, and murdered by the people that the courts are already letting back out on the street every day because some how or another their precious rights have been violated. Well, what about the rights of those that are the victims? As much as I find your article to be totally disgusting, I hope that you are never the victim that sees the perpetrator walk out of court with a big grin on his face because of some ridiculous decision by one of our thousands and thousands of liberal judges.”


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Dear Mike,

You’ve used the oldest technique in the book – you’ve accused me of saying something that I never said and then you attack me for it.

I never mentioned “the rights of poor individuals that continue to walk the streets and attack the innocent.” That’s absurd.

What I did attack was those within the justice system who are more concerned with winning convictions than finding the truth and real justice.

If you, Mike, doubt that there are some wrongly convicted people in U.S. prisons – and even on death row – I suggest you spend a little time on a Google search of the topic. ~ DD


Diane Dimond February 4, 2013 at 12:23 pm


“I agree that it is heartbreaking when we discover that someone has been wrongly convicted of a crime that he did not commit. I look forward to the day when forensics are so well developed that we can avoid such tragedies.

But even you must admit that for every person wrongly convicted, there must be thousands, if not millions of criminals released back into our communities due to technicalities and decisions by judges. We then see these individuals commit the same crimes over and over.

Look for a moment at the DWI plague in New Mexico. Quite often we see individuals with dozens of arrests for this horrible crime, with few convictions due to technicalities. So they return to the streets to harm and even kill the innocent. That is truly a travesty.

Now I see articles such as your recent one advocating additional methods of releasing these citizens back into our neighborhoods to hurt and kill again. That really does sadden me. We often read articles of how quickly certain groups or nationalities such as the Hispanics growing at such increasing rates. Yet we ignore the fact that the fastest growing element is the criminal. Do we really want a society that is comprised primarily of criminals?

I suggest that we need to focus our efforts on trying to help people make better decisions before they become criminals rather than looking for additional methods of freeing them once they begin their “career” as a criminal. It really does have to start in families (which is a deteriorating part of our society) and with citizens willing to help those who come from poorly developed families. I am certainly willing to help with that!”


Diane Dimond February 4, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Mike – my final response. I never said and would never advocate releasing guilty criminals back into society. Your DWI example? Lock ’em up. Confiscate their cars, permanently revoke their drivers licenses! Please don’t ascribe things to me that I never said.
My bottom line: American taxpayers paid to establish the DNA data base and it should be available to help WRONGLY CONVICTED people prove their innocence.
I totally agree with you that the biggest crime problem in America stems from the deterioration of the family structure. Sadly, we can’t pass any laws to solve that….it must come from within. ~ DD


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Noozhawk Reader EOlioveria writes:

“The cover-your-rear bureaucratic reaction to any embarrassing mistake applies to prosecutors and judges too.

Maybe the fear that folks they, and inept detectives, railroaded to state prisons for long sentences would bring tort actions against them also plays a part.

Just another example where improved scientific or diagnostic tools are advancing much faster than society’s ability to know how best to use them.”


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Facebook Friend Bill Voinovich writes:

“Why is this a surprise??????
If the taxpayers knew 10% of the sneaky crap they’re doing to us, they would storm Washington & burn it to the ground…….”


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Facebook Friend Pat Melchionno writes:

“I’m trying to fully understand this article DD. twice you say “re-test” so what do you mean “re-test”? The prosecution does the original DNA test and comes up with what information? Is their original test results that the defendant was or was not included in the DNA evidence conclusion? But as a general response to this article, yes, I say yes, defendants should have the same access to the DNA database as the prosecution does, absolutely.

I absolutely cannot fathom a prosecutor wanting a win at any costs over the win of a fair trial. If I won a tennis match over a gal with one leg, it wouldn’t be even a tiny bit a fair competition or worthy of a win and a trophy!”


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Facebook Friend Fred Mizzi writes:

“But, Pat, for the defense its limited unless they pay that’s why o j got off he was able to match dollar for dollar the average person can’t ,that’s why people take pleas.”


Diane Dimond January 28, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Facebook Friend Pat Melchionno writes:

“Who pays for it for the prosecution? The State, right, which is us, the taxpayers so yes as taxpayers we owe the same to Team Defense. Isn’t this what our court system is all about? Getting to the truth on an even playing field?”


Laura Oldham January 29, 2013 at 9:10 am

How anyone could be so naive as to beleive some prosecutors would not take every advantage available to get a conviction, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the defendant, is beyond me. In some cases, once prosecuters fix their aim on a defendant – they mistake their beliefs for reality – and do not want to hear differently from any source. I have personally seen this on several occaisons, and witnessed prosecuters awash with their power and mistaken beliefs – which is one reason I do not practice criminal law.
What is wrong with leveling the playing field?


Francis January 29, 2013 at 9:36 am

– Perceptions of Criminal Justice Professionals Regarding the Frequency of Wrongful Conviction and the Extent of System Errors
– Putting a Price on a Wrongful Conviction:
– Don’t make the innocent beg for justice, January 28, 2008:
– Wrongful Conviction Is ‘Nightmare’
Want more on Alice-in-Wonderland justice


Diane Dimond February 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Huffington Post Reader Maureen Reintjes writes:

“If you have a loved one or you yourself are the victim of a
violent crime you want the right person held accountable. It’s not only for personal reasons you also don’t want to see this person given the chance to hurt someone else. Our courts, our legal system should always, always be at getting to the truth on any matter.
Victims or loved ones of victims are not looking for closure as there is no such thing but they are looking for the truth so that no one else suffers. We have so many tools that could be used to come up with the truth with the greatest one being DNA sample yet these tools are bound up by such an antiquated and broken system. It needs to be fixed.

DNA databases should be available to all who seek it so that
truth can shine.”


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 12:51 am

Huffington Post Reader randalthor741 writes:

“There would be serious privacy concerns with making it available to all. There are ways to get around that, however: restrict access to those who currently have access, plus defense attorneys in criminal cases. If needed, you could even restrict it so that defense attorneys are notified when a match is found, but not notified of any further information aside from whether that match is their client. That way it can still exonerate the defense attorney’s client, and the law enforcement personnel can be forced to investigate the match without the potential of having the investigation compromised by the defense attorney making statements that alert the new suspect to the fact that he is being investigated.”


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 12:53 am

Huffington Post Reader pepper1311 writes:

“It’s all about winning,be dammed the truth.”


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 12:54 am

Huffington Post Reader KPinSEA writes:

“So, why doesn’t everyone get to have easy access to the system? ”

Because it’s a horrible end-run around privacy waiting to happen?


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 12:56 am

Huffington Post SlowDime writes:

“This could open a pandora’s box as well

can you imagine if a congressman’s DNA was found on a murder victim?”


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 12:58 am

Dear Slow dime:
Why should finding a Congressman’s dna at a murder scene be any different than your or my DNA being found at a murder scene? No one is above the law! ~ DD


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 12:59 am

Huffington Post Reader demsd writes:

“The government is more than happy with sending 10 innocent people to jail if it keeps one guilty person from going free.”


Diane Dimond February 7, 2013 at 1:01 am

Huffington Post reader lineman69 writes:

“A cure for this would to be make a mandotory law in which the prosecutors are made to serve the full sentence of which the victum had that he wouldn’t let the dna get retested. it also means there is no such thing as a fair trial.”


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