As technology advances, law enforcement gets more state of the art technology at its disposal. Nowadays, prosecutors and police have a powerful computer program that assists in distinguishing different DNA strands at crime scenes involving multiple victims or suspects. The science behind this technology is great; the problem is that law enforcement hasn’t been willing to share the details of how the process works. This is a big problem for defense lawyers when such evidence is used against their clients.
What is This DNA Software?
This revolutionary (yet little known ) program is referred to as TrueAllele Casework. This program, created by Cybergenetics, assigns DNA profiles to a given sample and produces a report that can be compared to any DNA bank.
According to Cybergenetics’ website, the software can “can extract information from a wide range of complex data, preserving viable information” and “compatible with the current SWGDAM guidelines.” The website further suggests that the software can be used to solve sexual assault, property crimes, homicide, mass disaster identifications, and paternity issues.
A video listed on the company’s website explains the software in a nutshell. The video gives the example scenario of solving a 30%, two person mixture by allowing the software to infer a genotype and subsequently producing a match statistic. Basically, the sample from the lab is introduced through the system’s Analyze module, and is updated to TrueAllele’s server through the Data Module.
The next step is for the user to activate the Request module to search for information about the sample. After the system performs its calculations, the user can check the information in the Review Module. Case reports are then available in the Case Reports Module.
According to the company, the software has the ability to alert the user as to any problems that occur during the analysis. The user then has the opportunity to resolve the issues before continuing on with the analysis.
What Makes This Software a Legal Problem
The problem defense attorneys have with this program is that they haven’t been given the opportunity to fully inspect it, thus they can never be totally sure its results are accurate. Total reliance on this type of software could potentially lead to inaccurate results and unjust accusations. Several lawyers have challenged the introduction of this evidence but have not had much success. The company and its developer have defended the program’s secrecy by asserting that its code is a trade secret.
A recent case where TrueAllele came under fire is Pennsylvania v. Foley, where an expert witness based his DNA testimony on the program’s reports. In this case, the testimony of Dr. Perlin sought to implicate the defendant, Foley, by showing that a DNA sample from the victim’s fingernail matched his DNA profile.
At the appeals stage, the defense argued that the testimony of Perlin did not meet the Frye test for admissibility. Specifically, it was argued that no other court relied on the program’s information, that no forensic laboratory used it for analyzing mixed samples, and that the results couldn’t be replicated by other scientists due to the proprietary nature of the program. The trial court did not analyze the evidence under Frye, rather it relied on Pennsylvania’s Product Rule which deals with statistical probabilities.
On appeal, the court looked at whether the evidence constituted “novel scientific evidence” as required for Frye to apply. The appeals court found that the technology was not novel in nature, and that there was no true dispute “regarding the reliability of the expert’s conclusions.” The court also found that the software was more widely used than Foley asserted. It’s prevalence in the scientific community and reliability was also noted in several peer journals.
In conclusion, the appeals court concluded that the trial did not abuse its discretion. At the end of the day, Foley was not successful in challenging the evidence.
Does TrueAllele Need to Prove More?
Despite the courts general acceptance of this technology, many continue to question its mechanics and accuracy. University of California professor William Thompson stated that the interpretation of DNA always faces problems. He further suggested that it is important to look at the details of such programs, yet it is difficult to do so due to the veil of secrecy. He also felt that “[t]here needs to be consideration by independent scientists on whether the method has been adequately validated.”
The Last Word on TrueAllele
As we can see from above, not everyone is so anxious to accept TrueAllele (and similar programs) with open arms. Their reason for feeling this way is well justified. In the criminal court system guilt is supposed to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Can we really meet such a standard if part of the evidence used to convict someone is only understood by a chosen few?