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Felonies: The role of DNA in criminal proceedings

Genetic research over more than 150 years has led to DNA analysis, which has become an invaluable asset in criminal justice. Today, the DNA of suspects in felonies like rape and murder can be compared to the DNA of millions of offenders, arrestees and also samples preserved from other crime scenes. By establishing CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, DNA found at a crime scene in Michigan might, for example, be matched to a sample collected years ago on the other side of the world.

It all started in 1865 when heritable traits were discovered in peas, and the discovery 15 years later that each individual's fingerprints are unique. In 1888, thorough documentation of crime scenes was made possible by the first Kodak cameras, and in 1910, the first crime lab was established in Europe. At that time, it was determined that a trace always remains where two objects make contact, and by mid-1900 scientists made it possible to test whether semen and blood are present.

These are the principles that form the basis for all forensic science. Take the so-called Golden State Killer, who is awaiting trial on 13 counts each of kidnapping and murder after his arrest in 2018. Who would have thought that a peeping Tom's petty theft in California in 1974 and 1975, and dozens of violent assaults across the Golden State between 1976 and 1986 would all be linked to one man through DNA? Connecting all the dots was made possible by the use of a genealogy website and DNA information of distant relatives. Ultimately, the final piece to the puzzle was a discarded napkin.

But the use of DNA in criminal proceedings works both ways. After the Innocence Project was founded in 1992, DNA analysis became a priceless tool in exonerating those who were wrongfully convicted. It gave hope to people in Michigan and elsewhere who are accused of felonies they did not commit. Having an attorney in his or her corner with skills and experience in using DNA to build a strong defense is an invaluable asset.

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