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While I loved my work as a prosecutor at the District Attorney's Office, the chance to become involved with DNA analysis offered something more, an opportunity to make a real difference in an entirely new area. I could be a prosecutor and help bring to the administration of justice something new, creative, and surely needed.
It was hard to imagine a system more in need of help than the criminal justice system. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, there was an explosion of violent crime in American society. As the fear of crime grew, it often focused on murder and rape, the most fearsome of all crimes. DNA analysis promised a perfect match for solving just these crimes, where blood or semen are most frequently left behind. DNA evidence could help put the worst of the worst behind bars and fully clear those falsely accused of the most serious crimes as no other evidentiary tool could.
This was also an alluring area to me because of its fundamental concern with actual guilt or innocence. The American judicial system, with its presumption of innocence and requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is rightly based on the premise that it is better that a guilty person go free than that an innocent person go to jail. Since all accused are innocent until proven guilty, protections built into that system to protect the innocent also, by necessity, protect those who have actually committed the crimes with which they have been charged.
Dialogue about the criminal justice process usually revolves around where to draw the line between society's right to protect itself and the right of criminal defendants to have their basic constitutional protections respected. This important debatefrequently has little to do with actual guilt or innocence, for as it has been played out over the years it has become a way the law regulates police and prosecutorial behavior. Evidence obtained in violation of every citizen's Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures may be kept out of a trial not because it will result in an unfair verdict but in the hope that its exclusion will discourage future illegal searches by the police. In a similar way, a confession obtained in violation of an accused's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination may be excluded not because it does not represent a true confession but to try to assure that the government is not encouraged to beat confessions out of suspects or in other ways to pressure them into providing evidence against themselves. In a sense, the law is willing to sacrifice justice in individual cases rather than under mine the constitutional safeguards that protect the individual from the power of the state.
By contrast, DNA evidence promised to go beyond balancing the rights of the accused and the rights of the state, and to aim straight at determination of the truth. Truth is sometimes an underrated commodity in the criminal justice system. In fact, there are judges who have prohibited lawyers from telling a jury that a trial is a search for the truth, insisting instead that a trial is a process, pursuant to the rules of evidence, to determine whether guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. For me, and for many others, the prospect of a focus on the truth in the criminal justice system was alluring, and I became an advocate for DNA analysis, pressing for its admissibility in speeches, in articles, and in the councils of government.
In 1995 I resigned from the District Attorney's Office to write this book. I believed it important to tell the story of DNA analysis, to help dispel some of the public bafflement surrounding this new technology, and to meet the strong desire of so many people to understand the controversy surrounding DNA testing. I have sought to explain the science of DNA and the legal issues involved in the simplest of terms, addressing them in the context of some of the most thrilling and dramatic court cases of our time. It is important that this story be told, because the controversy over DNA evidence has raised issues at the cutting edge of modern law and science and poses significant questions about the extent of our commitment to justice.
This is an account of high drama. It is a story of terrible crimes solved through DNA, of the guilty receiving their just deserts, of innocent people rescued from crushing punishments for crimes they did not commit. It is a saga that has played itself out in obscure but extraordinary cases as well as in famous cases, like the Central Park jogger case, the World Trade Center bombing, and the O. J. Simpson trial. The story of this still young technology has already ranged all over this nation and the world-from the hunt for Austria's most notorious serial killer, to the murders of young teenage girls in a small English village, to cases from Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Virginia.
Despite its short history, the story of DNA analysis has unfolded in a series of striking developments. It started with the birth of DNA testing, rooted in the most important scientific developments of this era. This was followed by controversy over its reliability and the question of whether the criminal justice system would still embrace the new science wholeheartedly despite that controversy. Then came the rebirth and triumph of DNA, followed by further controversy, this time over the role of race in DNA analysis, and then the development of a new kind of scientific man hunt to catch criminals. Next came a second generation of extraordinary DNA tests and the assault on those tests in the O. J. Simpson trial. The story concludes with some reflections on the tremendous power of DNA, as illustrated in the cases of a doctor charged with rape and evil twins charged with murder.
For the beginnings of this fascinating and important story, our eyes turn backward to the frontier.
Copyright ) 1996 by Harlan Levy