Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is a biological molecule found in every living cell. In human cells, over 3 billion DNA base pair units make up over 30,000 functional units called genes. These genes are organized into 46 chromosomes which collectively make up the human genome. As the central information molecule, DNA stores instructions necessary for cells to sustain life. Each individual’s genome is an inherited combination of his or her parents’ DNA. These instructions are then faithfully replicated throughout the individual’s fetal development and lifetime, each time a cell divides. Each individual, therefore, possesses a unique compliment of DNA that differs from that of everyone else in the world, but which remains consistent throughout every cell and tissue of the individual’s body.
For several decades, law enforcement agents have exploited the unique properties of DNA to link suspects with crimes by analyzing DNA samples gathered at crime scenes. Traditionally, law enforcement agencies and courts have utilized criminal DNA databases at the federal, state, and local levels to facilitate police activity and judiciary due process. While the scientific aspects of DNA forensics are fundamentally sound, the human aspects of how the processed information gets used are far from perfect.
Since law enforcement agencies began databanking processed DNA samples, means of tapping into this pool for purposes not directly related to solving a particular crime have generated much controversy. Statutes in several states now permit the use of criminal DNA databases in gathering population statistics and some of these states even explicitly permit the use of DNA in biomedical research as a means of pursuing “humanitarian purposes.”
Certain scientists are now interested in using criminal DNA databases to study the genetic basis of violent behavior through collection and analysis of anonymized samples of DNA. While the idea sounds safe and promising enough, there are many practical barriers to such a program that begin with issues of confidentiality and consent, continue through experimental validity, and see no end with any findings that may surface. While the samples may be anonymized, their donors never gave direct consent to participate in research. The anonymization process itself could also present a risk as demonstrated in the LGC scandal of 2006.
LGC, the private company that United Kingdom police contracted to analyze DNA samples, kept copies of DNA and demographic information from thousands of samples even after the analyses were performed. In effect, a copy of the DNA database used by law enforcement was now in private hands and beyond the protection of carefully established safeguards. Of course, in certain situations, DNA database custodians can give researchers the bare minimum required for a study on violent behavior without compromising the identities of the donors but the samples themselves are not fully representative. Consequently, comparing samples from the DNA database against a control cohort of citizens requires two shaky assumptions: that all the violent minded people have committed crime and been arrested, and that people who have never been convicted of a felony must be nonviolent.
Research and analyses based on such data can produce results that are difficult to interpret.
If studies do find the presence of a gene or a polymorphism can predict violent behavior, how do we know whether such correlates exist in fact or are mere artifacts, reflections of the DNA database’s skewed inventory. And if researchers find violent behavior to be correlated with certain races or skin colors? What social impacts can we expect and do we question the subjectivity of police officers who make the arrests and collected DNA?