You’ve seen the movie. The hero lawyer finds a single strand of hair on the corner of the bed, and the genius forensics tech tests its DNA. It’s a match. Clearly, the bad guy committed the crime, and the case is closed. While these scenarios make for great drama on the screen, they do not represent reality.
The use of DNA evidence in courtroom trials remains hotly contested and debated. Advances in science go both ways. On one hand, DNA is more accurate than ever. Scientists can easily determine exact matches in ways like never before, all the way down to someone’s heritage. On the other hand, those advances reveal flaws in our justice system. We now know that DNA samples can be easily tainted. We know how DNA can travel and that just because we find DNA evidence, it doesn’t necessarily mean the DNA’s owner was present at the scene of a crime.
This debate is coming to a head in Alaska, where DNA evidence from a 28-year-old cold case has brought murder charges to a Main resident, and the defense doesn’t buy it.
In 1993, Sophie Sergie’s body was found, brutally stabbed, in a college dorm bathtub. The case, having no leads, landed on the desk of Randy McPherron in 2017. The original investigators found a sperm sample on the body, but the DNA technology was too primitive to do anything with it. McPherron landed on an idea. He sent the sample to Parabon NanoLabs, a for-profit DNA company.
Some time later, Parabon came back to McPherron with some news. They had found a match. However, the match was not for the originator of the sperm sample, but for a potential relative. A woman in Virginia had used one of those ancestry services, the kind where you send a sample to discover your heritage, and she may have been connected to the owner of this sperm sample. Following this lead, the police found a nephew of hers, Steven Downs, who lived in the same dorm as Sophie Sergie at the time of the murder. They did a cheek swab on him and found he was a match for the sperm sample. Downs was arrested and awaits trial.
One of the main problems with the case is the presence of the semen itself. Because we know so much more about DNA now, we know it’s unreasonable to immediately assume that Downs is guilty of rape. Sperm samples can linger inside a woman’s body for days, so any sex between them could have been consensual and could have been well before the murder. There were also semen samples from another source found on her chest.
Semen samples don’t necessarily have to come directly from the source. Trace evidence can travel in laundry or in showers. Her body was found in a tub. Is it possible that they both happened to soak in the same tub, hours or days apart, and that’s how some of his samples wound up inside her? An argument like that could be a hard sell, but it definitely creates reasonable doubt.
Beyond the case itself, this situation brings a lot of civil liberties into question. Consider the chain of events that led to this arrest. A private company used its customer base to match a DNA sample that was kept in evidence. A relative, completely unrelated to this case, was discovered, which gave the police a path to Downs.
What expectation of privacy does a regular citizen have when handing over a sample of their DNA to an independent company? Like many things in life these days, there is a user agreement. Like they do with most user agreements, many consumers just agree to get to the product. Some of these DNA-sampling companies have language that states the samples could be used in investigations. For those who don’t, user agreements could be updated later to include this language. How does this affect those who agreed to an earlier version of the contract?
Currently, most states have few, if any, legal precedents on the use of DNA. Authorities could conceivably keep these records forever. And the reach goes even further than that. If we keep sending our samples to these companies and police keep collecting it as evidence, how long before we’re able to map every family line in the country? How long before we’re living in a cautionary sci-fi movie like Gattaca where companies are hiring based on genetic information; insurance companies are denying potential carriers of genetic disorders; and the police are keeping a closer eye on those with a family history of violence? As far-fetched as it sounds, these are questions that may eventually demand answers, sooner than we think.
The outcome of this Alaska murder case is worth monitoring. More and more debatable uses of DNA are creeping their way into courtrooms, and the outcome of this case could affect how DNA is used as evidence in the future.
Spaulding Law P.C. is here to help people who have been wrongfully accused of a crime. Consultations are free, and there’s no risk to you. Call us at (907) 312-1300 or contact us online.