Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – March 22, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.

Forensic science

Forensics gone wrong: When DNA snares the innocent

The 2015 TV series “Making a Murderer” has shed light on a disturbing issue in criminal justice – the dubious results of forensic scientists and the tests used to convict suspects. Though sensational, this is not a new problem in the field of forensic science. In 2012, a forensic scientist in Boston was arrested for tampering with evidence and recording positive tests for substances (such as drugs or blood) to ensure convictions. Other examples of forensic mismanagement include the Amanda Knox trial in which evidence was mishandled from the crime scene to the lab to the courtroom. Although Knox is likely innocent, the Italian justice system used poorly executed forensic “evidence” to keep her in jail for four years.

DNA evidence is now considered the gold standard in the courtroom, but before sequencing strategies were available, scientists often relied on microscopic characteristics of hair to make positive identifications. Just last month Santae Tribble, who served 28 years in jail for a murder he did not commit, was awarded $13.2 million. He was convicted using the presence of hair which was just like his, with a one in 10 million chance it could belong to somebody else. Now with DNA analysis it was discovered that the stocking used to cover the murderer’s face contained hair from 3 other individuals and one dog – but not Tribble.

What does this mean for Policy? Although advances in forensics enables our justice system to link suspects to crimes not previously possible, there must be more oversight into how the experiments are performed. We need more controls, blind experiments, and supervisor oversight in crime labs. Additionally, new technology must be rigorously tested to ensure that detections and genetic analyses are accurate. For example, currently 13 different positions on genes (loci) are used to detect if there is a genetic match, but the FBI will soon require analysis of 20 loci. This increases the sensitivity of genetic tests, and presumably the quality of evidence at trials. (Douglas Starr, Science News)

Infectious Diseases

Dengue Fever Vaccine is Effective – What About Zika?

Global warming has many reasons to keep us up at night, including rising sea levels, mass extinctions and reduction in resources, but perhaps the most immediately terrifying result is the increased prevalence of diseases spread by our least favorite organism, the mosquito. With the advent of summer we can expect more people to suffer from mosquito borne pathogens such as Zika virus, Malaria or Dengue fever. Viruses transmitted by mosquitos or between humans are nothing new, but global warming has expanded the territory in which these mosquitos can be found. This increased threat to the United States population has made production of vaccines an urgent priority for American scientists.

New hope is on the horizon, as scientists have successfully demonstrated that a new vaccine for Dengue fever is 100% effective. This brings optimism for quickly producing vaccines for Zika virus and other viral vectors, as successful technology for the Dengue fever vaccine can be translated to other diseases. Scientists are characteristically hesitant to make conclusions regarding a timeline for Zika vaccines, with some predicting years before one which is safe and effective. However, with the summer Olympics in Brazil just a few months away, now is the time for major funding and initiatives to produce a Zika vaccine for Brazilians and those traveling to the games. (

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

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