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According to the Associated Press, the New York State Commission on Forensic Sciences recently voted to allow forensic scientists to inform New York police departments when DNA collected at a crime scene is a near match to a convicted criminal in the state database. This is being termed by authorities as an “investigative lead” rather than a “DNA hit.” Denise O’Donnell, the commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services reports that partial matches, which indicate that the perpetrator is likely a relative of the near match in the database, are infrequent, but could serve to point to the actual criminal.

Current New York regulations require that any DNA evidence collected from a crime, such as a rape or homicide, must match the database exactly. New York’s database contains nearly 341, 000 DNA profiles of offenders. Because the proposed regulation is subject to public comment, the process to finalize the change may take months to implement. Opponents to the law change, such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, consider the proposed policy a “miscarriage of justice” that threatens privacy and due process rights. However, the potential to solve crime has driven support for the change. In fact, in North Carolina, Darryl Hunt spent 19 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder. When a DNA databank search partially matched a convicted felon, that inmate’s brother later confessed to the crime for which Mr. Hunt served time.

In addition to the dispute over individual rights, this issue presents an ethical dilemma for some crime lab scientists who identify these DNA near matches. If their state requires perfect matches, and they think an inmate’s relative is almost certainly a match to evidence, they may feel compelled to report the possible lead. But, is the effort to solve the crime worth the cost of implicating someone in a criminal investigation only because their DNA is a near match to the perpetrator? The debate continues…

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