In March, 2006, a woman who had been hired to dance at a party held by 47 members of the Duke University lacrosse team, told the Durham, North Carolina Police that she had been sexually assaulted by three of the players at the party. Subsequently, Michael B. Nifong, the district attorney of Durham County, indicted the three students on charges of rape, sexual assault and kidnapping. This case, reportedly, touched nerves of race, sex and privilege, both nationally and in Durham, because the accuser was said to be a poor, black local woman and the indicted students were relatively affluent, white, out-of-state students. It also was reported to have tapped into a debate about the off-the-field behavior of college athletes and the proper role of big-money sports on America’s university campuses.
When the three Duke students, R.S., C.F. and D.E., were indicted on these grievous and momentous charges, their names as well as the name of the accuser were released to the national press by Mr. Nifong. For fifteen months, their names were frequently repeated on national television, on-line news media and in the print press, without evidence other than the word of the accuser. The woman had been promptly and properly examined, by medically qualified professionals, using a “rape kit” to obtain fluids with tissue swabs which were sent to the appropriate laboratory for DNA identification. Similar samples of DNA evidence was also obtained from all but one of the remainder of the 46 team members. The one team member not tested was black and the accuser specified that the accused were white. The full report from the DNA laboratory was not discovered for more than a year. When the complete report was recovered, in April of 2007, the students were cleared of the charges. From the time of indictment until more than a year later, numerous lives, including many Duke University students and The University’s faculty were seriously altered.
The relations of students to faculty and students to citizens of Durham were strained and there were numerous law suits substantially changing the careers, education and significant direction of several lives. Duke University suspended the lacrosse team and the remaining of the lacrosse season was cancelled. The coach was forced to resign and relocate. Eighty-eight Duke University Faculty signed a petition and made a public stand on the behavior of the lacrosse team. Members of the Durham Police distributed “inflammatory posters” to “warn” Durham citizens, that these (alleged) incidents had occurred near The University campus.
It was subsequently established that DNA evidence was purposely withheld, apparently for political reasons. Upon complete review of the evidence and the activities of The District of Attorney of Durham, N.C., Mr. Nifong was removed and subsequently disbarred for ethical violations, including “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation”. The DA was found guilty of criminal contempt and was sentenced to jail. (1)
DNA evidence was crucial to the turning points in this dramatic chain of events. Without the DNA findings, it is likely that one or more Duke University students would have been tried and perhaps convicted of rape, sexual assault and kidnapping. Mr. Nifong would not have been discovered to have committed criminal fraud, including indicting the three innocent students. When the complete DNA report was uncovered, the evidence failed to demonstrate sperm or other body tissues from the accused students or the remainder team members.. Moreover, the woman who accused the students, was found to have positive DNA evidence, internal and external, from “multiple males” none of whom were Duke University students. (1)
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was the essential evidence that allowed a complete reversal of charges and allegations in this historic legal case. For more than a decade now, virtually daily reports of the use of DNA lead to the reversal of murder convictions, convictions of lessor crimes and use in paternity identity. The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 35 states. As of January 9, 2012, there have been 284 exonerations reported by The Innocence Project. (2)
DNA is, also, a daily component of fictional drama of films and prime time television such as CSI: SVU and NCIS.
How have so many authorities, including The Supreme Court of The United States, and even non-professionals readily incorporated DNA, unchallenged, into the daily practice of law and entertainment? What is the evidence that DNA is what it is said to be?
DNA analysis was first proposed in 1984 by the English scientist Alec J. Jeffreys. (3) By the late 1980s, it was being performed by law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and by commercial laboratories. It consists of comparing selected segments of DNA molecules from different individuals. In DNA analysis for a criminal investigation, using highly sophisticated scientific equipment, first a DNA molecule from the suspect is disassembled, and selected segments are isolated and measured. Then the suspect’s DNA profile is compared with one derived from a sample of physical evidence to see whether the two match. If a conclusive non-match occurs, the suspect may be eliminated from consideration. If a match occurs, a statistical analysis is performed to determine the probability that the sample of physical evidence came from another person with the same DNA profile as the suspect’s. When there is a match, the reported probabilities are usually highly statistically significant. Juries use this statistical result in determining whether a suspect is guilty or innocent.
Daily communication of our visible , audible and tactile observations is accomplished by information transfer using several methods. Early communication was recorded by symbols carved in clay or stone. These symbols matured into letters of the alphabet which we sort and resort in numerous sequences which are deciphered by those schooled in the codes of our language. The same is true on the microscopic level of the molecular make up of the nucleus of all of the cells of our bodies. The alphabet of the DNA in our cells consist of only four characters: C,G,A,& T. (Each letter represents an amino acid which are the components of all DNA). This complete inherited DNA is stored in the nucleus of each cell and tissue of our entire body. Therefore, one can obtain the evidence from any part of the body including fluids. It has been established that each human being (excepting identical twins) has coded DNA sequencing which is unique to that individual. The reason each of our coded sequence is unique is because we receive half of the instructions for our embryonic development from our father’s DNA in his sperm and the other half from our mother’s ovum. Thus each generation is a new combination of genetic instructions which has not previously existed. The singular DNA structure has also has occurred in each parents lineage when reproduction of our parents DNA code has been altered by copying errors. These errors lead to mutations which adds new information to the DNA from our inheritance. (4)
It is my firm conviction that the curriculum of American schools should have the science of DNA identification taught in order that everyone would understand what DNA is, and how it is likely to be a part of their daily life just as much as the more commonly known identification methods.
(2) The Innocence Project, http://www.innocenceproject.org
(3) Encyclopedia Britannica) Wade, Nicholas, Before The Dawn, Penguin Books, 2006
(4) Wade, Nicholaas