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Of rape and DNA tests

By: Ishrat Saleem

The successful use of DNA testing to identify rapists and to exonerate the innocent has prompted activists in the US to campaign for clearing the backlog of forensic evidence that was collected in rape and murder cases

Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is known as the ‘finger print of the 21st century’. Just like fingerprints, each person has a unique DNA profile. Decoding the human genome for specific markers to conclusively identify those involved in a crime has been a major achievement of forensic science. Like fingerprinting, DNA testing is now being routinely used in developed societies to link the biological materials (body fluids, hair, etc) found at crime scenes to their perpetrators to help solve cases, some of them more than 25 years old. DNA testing is specifically crucial in determining the perpetrator in cases of sexual assault.

The Innocence Project is a New York-based non-profit legal organisation that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing. Since its founding in 1992, it has helped free 306 people. This project was established in the wake of a study by the US Department of Justice and the US Senate, which found that incorrect identification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70 percent of wrongful convictions. Here are some snippets from the stories of freed people found on the project’s website (www.innocenceproject.org):

“On the afternoon of November 15, 1989, the 15-year-old victim went out after school to take pictures for a photography class. She never returned home. Her naked body was found by police dogs the morning of November 17, 1989. Her clothes and cassette player were recovered from the vicinity. She appeared to have been raped, beaten, and strangled. Jeff Deskovic, then 16 years old, was a classmate of the victim. He became a suspect because he was late to school the day after the victim disappeared. Police also believed he seemed overly distraught at the victim’s death, visiting her wake three times…Deskovic was taken to a private polygraph business run by an officer with the local Sheriff’s Department, who, according to trial testimony, had been hired to ‘get the confession’…In January 1991, Deskovic was convicted by jury of 1st degree rape and 2nd degree murder. In January 2006, the Innocence Project took on Deskovic’s case. The semen from the rape kit was tested with newer technology for entry into the New York State DNA databank of convicted felons. In September 2006, the semen was matched to convicted murderer Steven Cunningham, who was in prison for strangling the sister of his live-in girlfriend. Post-conviction DNA testing both proved Deskovic’s innocence and identified the real perpetrator of a 1989 murder and rape.”

“Herman Atkins was convicted by a jury in 1988 of robbery, rape, forcible oral copulation, and for using a handgun in the commission of these crimes. On April 8, 1986, the victim was working at the shoe store when she was raped and robbed at gunpoint. During the rape, the assailant ejaculated and wiped the semen from his genitals onto her sweater. The victim called the police and was taken to the hospital where vaginal swabs were collected. Her clothing, including the pink sweater with the semen stains, was collected and marked for identification. She then went to the police station and was shown Elsinore High School yearbooks but was unable to find her assailant. She did not identify Atkins as her assailant until after she was taken to a police station briefing room, where she saw a wanted poster for him on unrelated charges… Atkins’s defence was mistaken eyewitness identification. He presented an alibi witness and testified on his own behalf…Atkins was sentenced to over 45 years in prison…Atkins’s case was accepted by the Innocence Project in 1993…Forensic Science Association performed DNA testing on the semen stains found on the victim’s sweater. The spermatozoa found were determined to be from someone other than Atkins. Based on the test results, Herman Atkins was released from prison in February 2000, after spending 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.”

DNA testing helped identify rapists in many cases. One such case was solved in Elkhart, Indiana, USA, after 25 years: “On March 5, 1988 a 10-year-old girl was abducted from her home around 11 pm, taken to a wooded area, raped, and then returned to her neighbourhood. The victim was taken to the hospital and it was determined she suffered considerable injury during the assault, according to prosecutors. The Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department collected biological evidence from the victim and sent it to the Indiana State Police lab in anticipation of testing. In 2011, the victim contacted the sheriff’s department about her case. Because the original biological samples were still at the ISP lab, they were tested for DNA…In 2012, a possible match was found for the male DNA. A warrant was obtained for the suspect’s DNA for comparison. On February 13, lab results indicated the DNA of the suspect was a match to Robert E Quinn, an inmate with the Indiana Department of Corrections. Quinn is currently serving a sentence on a parole violation from a 2005 child molestation charge from Elkhart County. Quinn has been charged with rape, child molesting, and criminal confinement” (abc57.com, March 6, 2013).

Another story goes: “It was an ordinary day in October 2002. Julie Weil and her infant son were picking up Julie’s daughter, three-year-old Emily, from her Florida preschool at noon. As Julie buckled her daughter into her car seat, she felt a sudden blow to the head. That day, Julie was raped four times in front of her children. After the initial blow, Julie’s attacker hijacked her minivan and took the family to a hidden, far-away place near the Everglades. There, he ordered Julie to disrobe, threatened her three-year-old daughter and forced both of her kids to watch as their mother was savagely assaulted. Julie wasn’t the first woman this man had raped, nor, perhaps, the last. To help police catch him, she endured a two hour, head-to-toe forensic exam immediately after the assault. Because the rapist had ejaculated in Julie’s mouth, the exam only turned up a speck of DNA on the T-shirt she had worn, which matched the DNA profile taken from another rape victim. Police knew they were looking for a serial rapist, but they didn’t yet have a suspect. Months later, Julie got a call from police: They had a DNA match. Her rapist had been arrested after beating his pregnant girlfriend at a hotel, and the swab from his mouth matched the DNA collected from Julie’s T-shirt” (msmagazine.com, August 4, 2011).

The successful use of DNA testing to identify rapists and to exonerate the innocent has prompted activists in the US to campaign for clearing the backlog of forensic evidence that was collected in rape and murder cases but never sent for laboratory examination. They are also calling for collecting DNA from everyone arrested for a felony or detained by federal authorities, just as fingerprints are routinely collected today. Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is a computer database “that stores DNA profiles created by federal, state, and local crime laboratories in the United States, with the ability to search the database to assist in the identification of suspects in crimes” (Wikipedia). As it has grown to include DNA from 4.2 million convicted criminals, the ‘hit rate’ (percentage of cases in which DNA found at the crime scene can be matched to that of a criminal in the database) has gone up dramatically (rainn.org).

Recently, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) has ruled that DNA testing cannot be presented as primary evidence in a court of law in cases of rape. At one time, they might well have ruled that fingerprinting cannot be presented as primary evidence of the identity of a person, because it was not mentioned in the Quran. Eyewitness accounts, even those of the victim himself/herself, can be erroneous and may lead to wrongful conviction and gross injustice. I may not be knowledgeable to comment on the legal niceties of Sharia law, but I am sufficiently educated to assert that the legal system of Pakistan should accept any and all conclusive evidence that can help the victims of rape get justice.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. She tweets at @ishrats and can be reached at [email protected]

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