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Sunday 12 October 2008

DNA profiling, homicide and hate crimes

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 2nd September 2007

DNA sampling is a godsend to police at a modern crime scene investigation, such as aggravated assault in the context of hate crime or homicide. So why does it sometimes go wrong?

Given recent trials in Australia and New Zealand related to possible hate crimes and related possible homicides, the above may be a valid question. Michael Guerin has written a recent book on the subject of DNA and modern forensic techniques can be used to apprehend criminals. Although none of the cases cited involved lesbians or gay men, this book still makes instructive reading for those concerned about current developments in policing and professional standards.

DNA profiling is not a magic bullet, but it is also an evolving technology. Therefore, it was cause for relief when comparative DNA profiling apprehended murderous paedophile Jules Mikus, fifteen years after his abduction, rape and murder of six year-old Teresa McCormack. It should be noted that the delays in that instance resulted from the cursory state of DNA profiling at the time of Teresa's murder, and if anything, the police investigating team should be commended for their perserverance and diligence.

Unfortunately, though, not all police forensic practice is of a similarly high standard, although it is noteworthy that Guerin focuses his attention on the United States for his example of professional negligence in forensic techniques. In this context, it is the O.J.Simpson trial in California, in 1995. In this case, there was woeful disregard for diligence and professional standards in forensic procedures. Police personnel signed affidavits about the defendant which could not be confirmed from blood samples which were not processed at an early stage of the investigation. One forensic pathologist kept lax and cursory records and had disregard for sterile environment procedures when it came to preservation of forensic samples.

The crime scene investigation had not even been properly secured at the onset of the investigation, which is a baseline for consequent forensic investigation, another couple of investigating officers didn't use sterile gloves, and as a result, the defence managed to raise substantive questions about whether or not Simpson had killed his ex-partner Nicole and her lover. In the end, this cumulative lack of systematic evidence collection, identification and preservation led to OJ's final acquittal. According to similar independent peer evaluations of the standards of local police forensic practice at Sydney's Bondi stations during a spate of antigay homicides in the late eighties, there was analogous disregard for professional forensic standards there.

What implications flow from the above? Should there be a national DNA criminal database to speed investigation, apprehension and conviction of criminals? As long as such a database's use is restricted to police (and perhaps national security risk evaluation), I would agree with that proposal.

Perhaps the Minister of Police, Hon. Annette King, might also want to consider whether an audit of police forensic practice is warranted in our own context. It is high time that we paid more attention to criminal justice and policing issues, if only for the following reasons.

If we are to critically engage with the so-called defence of provocation in the context of homophobic violence, then forensic evidence may contribute to that process, and bring home that homophobic hate crimes are a matter of aggravated assault- and, in some cases, is sufficient to cause homicide. Moreover, it will also bring closure to the partners, friends and family/whanau involved in mourning the loss of their loved one, through insuring that the magnitude of the crime is reflected satisfactorily in evidence collection standards and resultant sentencing.


Michael Guerin: Convicted: Forensic Science Catching Killers in Australia and New Zealand: Reed: Auckland: 2007.

I.J.Fenn: The Beat: A True Account of the Bondi Gay Murders: Rowville: Five Mile Press: 2006.

Craig Young - 2nd September 2007