Will New DNA Forensic Testing Cause Wrongful Convictions?

DNA binary code

Davontae Sanford got lucky. Compared to many young men who end up spending most of their lives in prison for a crime they didn’t commit with no way to prove their innocence, he hit the one-in-a-million jackpot.

Wayne County dropped its case against Sanford for police misconduct during the 2007 case against him.

Davontae Sanford has been in the news recently because he’s suing the state. He is suing for more compensation for time spent in a detention center for teens before he plead guilty.

However, he’s also been in the news again because of a few DNA molecules found on his shoes collected at the crime scene.

First, if you haven’t heard this story, it’s a doozy. Sanford was just 14 years old when police found him outside a drug house in Detroit in his pajamas. This was after four people had been gunned down inside.

Police took him in for a questioning session that lasted for two days. After the two days, they declared he had confessed to the murders.

Sanford spent 198 days in a juvenile detention facility before pleading guilty. Then, he spent the rest of the nine years in prison until 2016.

A cursory examination of his story reveals the inconsistencies in his “confession” even without a signed confession from the actual killer, Vincent Smothers. Smothers is in prison for eight other murders and has confessed to the Runyon Street killings.

Shaky DNA Evidence

What is interesting and potentially problematic about Sanford’s case now is this little piece of DNA “evidence” the state has included as it negotiates with Sanford over his wrongful conviction.

Cybergenetics – using TrueAllele technology – has found DNA evidence from one of the victims on Sanford’s shoe.

It was included in the court filings by the attorneys representing Michigan State police in the lawsuit. Both the company and state police have stated that the findings are preliminary and couldn’t be used in a court case.

However, it’s damaging enough that Sanford’s legal team has asked to take the filing off of the public record.

There are so many reasons to believe Sanford – who is developmentally challenged and blind in one eye – did not commit this crime.

While other forensic science used to convict people has been discredited in recent years, juries have come to trust and rely on DNA evidence even more.

New DNA Technology

DNA evidence has changed in the 20 years since it began to be used in the courtroom.

The technology has gone from using large amounts of single-source DNA – like what is collected in a rape kit, for example – to trace DNA – like the kind you would leave after touching a keypad or a car door handle.

Not only that, but Cybergenetics – one of the companies that have patented probabilistic genotyping – is making its money by sorting out DNA from multiple sources within the same sample where other technology would have shown inconclusive findings.

This technology boasts the ability to do something like this:

  • To find a suspect based on the fact that they touched a doorknob
  • Furthermore, to find the right person when ten other people have touched the same doorknob.

It’s a mathematical formula so complicated that only a computer can do it.

Wired examined some of the main problems with using this technology in court. One problem is that the technology is so complex that no human is going to be able to look and see any errors in the code.

However, errors may exist, pointing to the wrong person.

Cybergenetics claims to have a review process. However, that process is done by Cybergenetics. What happens if we rely on a test that only one company can do and review? What if that test is the decisive factor in putting a person in prison for the rest of his life?

Takeaway

Davontae Sanford got some amount of justice after his wrongful conviction. Many others who have been wrongfully convicted have reason to be thankful for DNA testing, as it has exonerated many.

Will DNA testing become so complicated, patented, and full of errors that it begins to be used to assist in wrongful convictions like so many other forensic sciences? Let’s hope not.

What do you think? Does the news story about the DNA on Davontae Sanford’s shoe make you think differently about his case? Would it make it difficult to give an unbiased decision on his jury if he were brought to trial?