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Racial DNA sparks debate

Police use of so-called indicators isn't reliable or fair, geneticists say

FRANK D. ROYLANCE

Baltimore Sun

From ever-tinier bits of tissue, crime fighters are tweezing out the DNA evidence they need to identify and convict violent offenders. The same technology has saved hundreds, possibly thousands of innocents from jail or execution.

But some bioethicists warn there might be a problem in the expanding use of genetics by criminal investigators.

Police are using "racial markers" from crime scene DNA to steer investigators toward the likely race or ethnicity of unidentified suspects. But medical geneticists say there's not much evidence that those markers can reliably predict a person's ancestry or appearance.

Genetic inferences about a suspect's race have led to a least a dozen dragnets in the United States. Thousands of innocent people have been asked to volunteer their DNA for comparison with a suspect's. Some who refused have been served with search warrants.

"Too often, the mere availability of data and technology, rather than ethical considerations of social needs, drives its use in unintended ways," says Mildred Cho of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, writing in a special issue of the journal Nature Genetics with Pamela Sankar of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics.

They want medical geneticists and experts in legal, ethical and social issues to look harder at how forensic geneticists fight crime. Their paper is part of a growing scientific debate over the implications of human genome research for our 400-year-old concepts of race.

Research shows that our relatively recent origin as a species -- and millenniums of mixing our DNA -- have made us 99.9 percent identical at the genetic level.

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