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Evolving DNA technology: deeply powerful, notably concerning

Hard-hitting crime dramas have dominated television ratings for decades, with the most popular shows in recent years supplementing action portrayed on the streets of major American cities with goings-on in sophisticated laboratories.

Readers of our North Carolina criminal law blog know exactly what that means: A one-picture-tells-all snapshot of what we're talking about would be the ubiquitous image of a researcher in a white coat hunched over a microscope in a police laboratory poring over DNA evidence.

And, of course, what that learned technician discovers is -- at least on TV -- invariably accurate and a key indicator of criminal culpability week after week.

Here's a question: How infallible are DNA-based conclusions, truly? Should the pronouncements of a given Ph.D. grounded in some esoteric science be deemed unquestionable and even inviolable?

We submit that reality is often far removed from the fiction that predominates on cop shows.

And we're hardly alone in that view.

In fact, one singular and continuously evolving tangent of DNA testing is presently under a harsh spotlight regarding its nexus with error.

Many readers have likely never heard of "low copy number DNA analysis," but many people who have and know something about it express deep concerns regarding its potential implications in any given criminal law case.

Low copy analysis uses a bare minimum of molecules for testing, which renders it easier for investigators to secure and submit evidence for evaluation.

They like that, of course.

Many inside commentators don't.

A recent national media report on the technique states that, "the more sensitive DNA tests become, the greater the risk that they will yield the wrong result."

That potential is, of course, far more than a theoretical concern for a select criminal suspect in a given case. Rather, it can lead to a horrifying conclusion, namely this: tainted results that send an innocent person to prison for decades, perhaps even life.

"I'm not pleased with what's been done with low copy number in forensics to date," says one applied genetics expert.

The technology is flatly powerful. For obvious reasons, it is imperative that it also be unerringly accurate.


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