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Out & About: Law professor to discuss DNA in Newport

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/9/2019 4:13:58 PM
Modified: 12/9/2019 4:13:55 PM

NEWPORT — DNA evidence plays such a critical role in many criminal investigations that it’s hard to imagine how police ever solved crimes before DNA testing was developed.

But in reality, forensic DNA analysis has been in use only since the 1980s, and the methods of gathering and storing data are still far from foolproof.

For example, samples found at crime scenes can be degraded through environmental exposure or mixed with the genetic material of others present at the scene, producing misleading results.

Of equal concern to civil liberties advocates like Albert E. (Buzz) Scherr, law professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law in Concord, is that millions of people’s DNA records are being stored in giant databases around the world, often for reasons that have nothing to do with criminal investigations.

Scherr will present a free talk titled “Do You Know Where Your DNA Is?” at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Richards Free Library in Newport.

Scherr’s presentation will look at the varied uses of genetic information, including genetic genealogy, familial searching and wrongful convictions based on DNA testing.

In an email Q&A, Scherr explained why we should care who has our DNA records on file.

Question: Which companies or other entities are likely to have our DNA profiles and where did they get the samples?

Answer: Several different kinds of companies:

1) Genetic ancestry companies like and 23 & me.

2) State and federal governments, if you’ve been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor or arrested for one, depending on the particular state.

3) Police departments who collect your DNA sample to eliminate you as a suspect and then keep it forever to use “however.”

4) Medical research companies, like big pharmaceutical companies.

Q: How is DNA evidence used in a legal context?

A: Most commonly, it’s used in the criminal justice system to help identify the perpetrator or to exculpate a suspect. It is also used to exculpate people serving sentences who were wrongfully convicted.

Q: Are there problems with the methods commonly used?

A: Yes, when a sample is a mixture and has another person’s DNA profile in it, in addition to the victim’s and known suspect’s DNA. There are still no set rules for interpreting mixtures.

Q: How has DNA forensic technology improved over the decades?

A: In the criminal justice system, the testing has become faster and more discriminating. That said, interpretation of mixtures has become far more subjective.

Q: What changes would you advocate for in the way our genetic information is stored and used?

A: Whatever the context of collection, people should be given clear, simple and specific notice of how their sample will and will not be used.

If it is later to be used for a new purpose, (companies) need to get additional permission/consent.

Editor’s note: For more information, call the library at 603-863-3430.

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