The New York Times Manufactures a DNA Scare

Do they have no shame, or just no standards?

DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show

Published: August 17, 2009

Scientists in Israel have demonstrated that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence, undermining the credibility of what has been considered the gold standard of proof in criminal cases.

Oh no, that sounds really scary.  The credibility of DNA evidence has been undermined!

It gets far less scary if you bother to read to the bottom of the article:

The scientists fabricated DNA samples two ways. One required a real, if tiny, DNA sample, perhaps from a strand of hair or drinking cup. They amplified the tiny sample into a large quantity of DNA using a standard technique called whole genome amplification.

OK, so here’s how it would work.  The real killer would steal a piece of hair from the person he wanted to frame.  The he would go to his evil lair and “amplify” the one hair into a whole mess of DNA.  Then he would take the DNA to the murder scene and smear it all over the . . .

Wait a minute.  What would he put it in, sperm?  What about the sperm’s DNA?  Where does that go, Einstein?  And wouldn’t a lab tech notice that the sperm had been altered, or that there was just this big mess of manufactured DNA that didn’t come from any body fluid lying around?  Surely there are easier ways to frame somebody, like just leaving the hair you’ve stolen from them at the scene of the crime, instead of doing a science project with the piece of hair, and then leaving the science project at the scene of the crime.  The reporter acknowledges:

Of course, a drinking cup or piece of hair might itself be left at a crime scene to frame someone. . .

But that wouldn’t be fabricating DNA, right?  That would just be planting evidence.

Now, in all fairness, the next example of fabricating DNA does address the “where do you put the stuff after you make it?” conundrum:

The authors of the paper took blood from a woman and centrifuged it to remove the white cells, which contain DNA. To the remaining red cells they added DNA that had been amplified from a man’s hair.  Since red cells do not contain DNA, all of the genetic material in the blood sample was from the man.

OK, so you get a hair from the guy you want to frame, and you amplify the DNA, then you take somebody else’s blood, and centrifuge it and remove the white blood cells (which nobody is going to notice?), and stick the DNA into that blood, and then smear the blood around at the crime scene (making sure you haven’t left your DNA anywhere), and then, according to the Times reporter, lab technicians cannot tell the blood has been centrifuged and the DNA has been replaced with somebody else’s amplified DNA.

Oh, wait, scratch that.  The researchers have invented a test that can show whether DNA has been amplified.  They’re trying to sell this test to labs.  Funny, the first step for doing that would be to claim that forensics technicians would not notice if blood and saliva had been altered, and the second step would be to create a false panic about evil machinators armed with centrifuges and enemy hair preparing to undermine the credibility of DNA:

Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, said the findings were worrisome.  “DNA is a lot easier to plant at a crime scene than fingerprints,” she said.

Yes, Tania, it is.  And it’s a lot easier to plant hair at a crime scene than to do all that centrifuging and injecting, which now won’t actually work anyway because it can be detected by a test.

Which means the credibility of DNA evidence has not actually been undermined.

Of course, the idea that anybody who isn’t an international spy would do this is absurd.  And now, with this new test, even the international league of centrifuge-and-tweezer-armed mystery men are fresh out of luck.

The only case I’ve come across where somebody tried to alter a DNA sample to deflect responsibility for a crime was convicted rapist Benjamin LaGuer.  LaGuer admitted to mixing another inmate’s saliva with his own with his own in an effort to befuddle investigators.  The only people who were the least bit fooled were his personal brain trust, rapist apologists John Silber (president emeritus, Boston University) and Noam Chomsky (academic raconteur), who managed to convince themselves that this easily detected ploy somehow cast doubt on LaGuer’s guilt.  Sometimes, it’s not the DNA in the lab that matters: it’s the DNA of the mindset.

Similarly, the Times has a shameful history of trying to whip up doubts and hysteria about DNA evidence when it is used to implicate offenders and investigate crimes.  When it is used to exculpate convicts, however, it is always 100% unquestionably accurate.

This article is just the latest in a long line of such bedtime stories for the A.C.L.U./David E. Kelley crowd.

The headline should actually read: “Credibility of DNA Reinforced.”


2 thoughts on “The New York Times Manufactures a DNA Scare”

  1. I just saw an episode of law and order (svu) and they had this same scenario. This criminal paid some scientist to alter dna, taking out someone else’s white blood cells and placing it into someone else’s blood to frame them. I never even heard of that before and was wondering if it were true. So I looked it up and came across your site. So now I’m even more confused. Is it true? or not?

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