Blood Evidence, How DNA Is Revolutionizing the Way We Solve Crimes
Authors: Henry C. Lee Ph.D. and Frank Tirnady.
Publishers: Perseus Publishing
Price £19.99 RRP UK
Publication Date: May 2003
This is a very well-researched, interesting and informative book, with the slightly misleading title of ‘Blood Evidence’, because as one would expect, the bulk of the book is about DNA, and as is explained in the book, DNA is obtainable not only from blood but also from a host of other body fluids, hair, and now, (as I discovered from the book), also bone.
The book describes how in its relatively short time, DNA has been responsible for the solving of crimes considered otherwise unsolvable, abbreviated the careers of serial rapists and serial- killers, identified the remains of soldiers missing in action or of historical figures, established paternity in hundreds of thousands of instances, assisted medical detectives in the tracking of diseases, helped authorities in controlling problems with food supply, resolved contentious public debates, and illuminated countless other controversies involving biological issues.
The book recounts many fascinating cases where DNA analysis has demonstrated its amazing ability as an investigative tool, because it can differentiate between one person and another, one animal from another, one plant from another, and even one viral or bacterial strain from another.
The authors explain how DNA was discovered, and also explain how it works. For those readers who have a medical or scientific background, the book also describes the differences between the various types of DNA analysing techniques, how they are applied, and in the last chapter looks at the possible future of forensic DNA analysis.
Both authors are American, and the book therefore concentrates on American cases, how the American Court system works, and how individual States introduced legislation to accommodate this ‘new scientific phenomenon’. The book does, however, examine in some detail several cases in the United Kingdom, and also looks at the British system of managing a DNA database, (in the UK the Forensic Science Service are the custodians of the National DNA Database). In the USA it was only in 1998 that the FBI launched a National DNA Index System, before that, records were kept and searched on a State by State system, and quite often one system was not compatible with the another. The authors state “America follows where Britain leads with the idea of a national DNA database”. The book also makes the point that the UK was way ahead of the USA in introducing legislation whereby suspects convicted of a crime, (whether or not DNA evidence is involved), would have a DNA sample taken, which when profiled would be placed on a national database.
The book reveals some interesting facts and figures regarding DNA in the United States, for example, between 1989 -2002, more than 120 men had been released from jail, (death row in some cases), after DNA, (not available at the time of their trials), had excluded them as contributors of biological evidence linked to the crimes for which they had been convicted. It also shows how much the Criminal Justice System in the USA now relies on DNA with the fact that prosecutors submit an estimated 10,000 biological samples for DNA testing every year. Between 25%-30% of those samples come back excluding the prime suspect, whereas most of the rest inspire guilty pleas.
In my view, the authors go off on somewhat of a tangent at one point, with two chapters entitled “The Worlds Most Wanted Man”, which deal with the eventual DNA identification of a skeleton, unearthed in Brazil in 1985, as that of the notorious war criminal Dr. Joseph Mengele. The chapters describe the rise of Waffen SS and the measures taken to try to produce “racial purity” in Germany, both before and during the war. They also describe in terrible detail some of the experiments carried out by Mengele in the concentration camps. The book describes how Mengele escaped at the end of the war and how he managed to evade capture until his death in 1979. This section also deals with different identification techniques tried on the skeleton, including comparisons with known X-rays of Mengele, and comparisons made with the remains of the teeth and dental records, all of which only ‘pointed’ to an identification. Eventually Professor Alec J Jeffreys of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester in England working with Dr Erica Hagelberg of the University of California, succeeded not only in extracting enough DNA to make a comparison possible, but also in making a positive match between the extracted DNA and that of known living relatives of Joseph Mengele.
If, like me, you find history interesting, then the detail in these two chapters is very informative and well worth reading.
There are two chapters, (entitled Bad Blood), that deal exclusively with the now notorious eight month trial in California in 1995, of OJ Simpson, for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. The authors skilfully take the reader through what is known of the build up to the crime, through the immediate aftermath, the police investigation, the scientific examinations and the court case. Despite the fact that 124 expert and lay witnesses gave evidence, (some more than once), and that the prosecution alone presented 488 exhibits during the trial, the book never becomes bogged down with the weight of information, but rather, guides the reader through it all with skill, dexterity, and in a totally unbiased way.
Before reading this book, I like many others, had a very definite view on OJ Simpson’s guilt or otherwise. After reading these two chapters I have to admit to a change of mind.
The book describes the many actions of the Los Angeles Police Department at the various scenes involved with the crime, their exhibit handling and packaging, (and in some cases – lack of it), and their exhibit monitoring and management, (and in most cases their complete lack of it!). Most of their actions, as stated in this book, made me, (as a UK trained Crime Scene Examiner), literally cringe. No wonder the defence team found so many inconsistencies in their evidence, and so many possibilities for contamination, that they were able to carry out such devastating cross-examinations.
This book maintains the interest of the reader from start to finish, examining and explaining on the way, all the various aspects of DNA, and its use by various agencies, from the very first criminal case in which it was used by Scotland Yard in 1986 to solve a murder, through to the devastating attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. From the definite identification of human remains found in Russia in the 1970s as being those of Tsar Nicholas and his family, executed by firing squad by the Bolsheviks in 1918, to the identification of airline crash victims, and from the use of DNA in war crimes, such as in Bosnia and Kosovo to the examination of the Shroud of Turin.
The book also introduces the reader to many little known aspects of this science, for example: DNA authentication tags now being used to identify very valuable items, and how DNA has been useful in reducing the traffic and sale of illegally obtained exotic animals birds and plants.
The book also describes one DNA study that shook the wine industry to its foundations, when a variation of DNA paternity testing revealed that some of the world’s most prized and expensive wines are, in fact, not entirely of noble origins but are instead descended from the wine equivalent of peasant stock.
The authors use a great many sources, and quotes. The quote that sticks in my mind, and I believe at the same time says a great deal about this subject, is from Jill Porter a columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, who at the conclusion of a high-profile paternity court case wrote “Diamonds are no longer a girl’s best friend. DNA is”.
Andy Day. Jan 2005.
In 1993 Andy Day Retired from the City of London Police and became a Civilian Crime Scene Examiner and Crime Scene Manager with the same force, a post he held for nine years until he finally left the City in 2002, having served it in total for more than forty years. He was until final retirement a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science at the London South Bank University.
Dr. Henry C. Lee, Ph.D. is the Chief Emeritus for Scientific Services, Chair Professor at University of New Haven, Forensic science program, Research professor in Molecular Cell Biology at the University of Connecticut, and the former Commissioner of Public Safety for the State of Connecticut. He served as that state's Chief Criminalist from 1979 to 2000 and was the driving force behind establishing a modern forensic lab in Connecticut. He has received numerous awards for his work and has helped the police around the world with over 6,000 cases. He has authored or co-authored over 30 books on forensic science. Frank W. Tirnady is a writer living in Middletown, Connecticut. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and the University of Connecticut School of Law. This is his first book.