Reasonable Doubt About the Validity of DNA Testing

In the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic, Matthew Shaer discussed the fallibility of seemingly infallible: DNA evidence. In The False Promise of DNA Testing, Shaer highlighted the case of Josia Sutton, an African American man whose wrongful rape conviction was overturned with evidence that the DNA used to convict him was collected in a clumsy manner and inaccurately analyzed by a lab technician. Shaer likens the reasonable doubt regarding DNA evidence to recently debunked forensic evidence like dental fingerprinting, ballistics testing, and microscopic-hair-comparison analysis. Surveying the problems with DNA evidence, Shaer details the capacity for human error in the collection, storage, testing, and analysis of DNA evidence. Citing scientific studies and books, as well as criminal justice cases, Shaer paints a critical picture of the DNA evidence we once thought of as “a silver bullet.” In the closing pages of the article, Shaer highlights software companies aiming to take the human element out of DNA analysis, but raises concerns over the “black box” protecting these companies’ trade secrets – and their analysis, from judges’ and juries’ criticism. In short, Shaer paints a concerning picture regarding the validity of DNA evidence, and raises a reasonable doubt about the sanctity of this once infallible silver bullet.

Nathan A. Crane