Genetics, Crime and Justice

Genetics, Crime and Justice

Debra Wilson

As our understanding of genetics increases, its use in criminal justice becomes more attractive. This timely book examines the use of genetic information both in criminal investigations and during the trial process. It discusses current scientific understanding and considers some potential legal, ethical and sociological issues with the use of genetic information. Topics include rights of privacy and consent in obtaining DNA samples, evidentiary issues in court, the impact of genetic evidence on punishment theory and sentencing, and genetic discrimination.

Chapter 3: Use of genetics in criminal investigations

Debra Wilson

Subjects: law - academic, biotechnology and pharmaceutical law, criminal law and justice, law and society, regulation and governance


In 1986, Richard Buckland confessed to the rape and murder of 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth, providing police with specific details of the crime scene that had not been released to the public. An issue with the confession arose, however, when it was discovered that Buckland’s blood type differed from that of blood found at the crime scene. British scientist Alec Jeffreys (who two years before had discovered DNA profiling) ran a DNA test on Buckland and confirmed the lack of a match with the crime scene blood sample. After he had informed the police of this result, a senior police officer commented ‘Jeffreys does a test that we’ve never heard of and comes back and says “you’ve got the wrong guy”. You can’t challenge it. How can you challenge brand new science? Nobody else in the bloody world knows anything about it.’ While this first use of DNA profiling was to exonerate Buckland, it was also subsequently used in this case to catch the killer, Colin Pitchfork, via a technique called a dragnet, or sweep. This chapter will consider the use of genetic material during the investigation of a crime. It will begin by examining the laws in relation to DNA profiling and databases, using several jurisdictions to compare approaches. From there it will consider some of the ethical issues associated with databases, including the use of samples or profiles in dragnets, familial testing and phenotyping.

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