A'vast and be swabbed, me matey. Part II
April 18, 2005 6:03 AM   Subscribe

The suspect's DNA sample was taken long before the sweep. The MA State Police's crime lab was so backlogged that they were only able to test it this year. Who knows when the DNA samples taken during the sweep would've been tested.

So no, sweeps have not been vindicated. And I hope they never are.
posted by BigFatWhale at 6:08 AM on April 18, 2005

They had the guy as a possible suspect in April 2002 and knew about his criminal record in Florida, but they took two years to test his DNA?

Let's run an EEG sweep on everyone in local law enforcement who had anything to do with the case.
posted by rcade at 6:13 AM on April 18, 2005

Didn't they think it was the boyfriend/father of the kid for a long time?

And--if she hadn't had so many media contacts (and was white and attractive), would this case ever have been solved?
posted by amberglow at 6:20 AM on April 18, 2005

I didn't do a good job of phrasing this issue. I meant, won't the police and prosecutors say something like, Hey no harm done. The guy was caught because of a DNA match, and it exonerated the innocent people who submitted their DNA. See, it worked! Let's have more of this.
posted by a_day_late at 6:29 AM on April 18, 2005

I know I'm callous, but I always thought the media's fascination with this case went way overboard. I'm as indifferent to dead white women as I am to any random brown murder victim. It's only when the murders are part of a larger societal problem that I think they move beyond being a family tragedy to something that's newsworthy.

That makes more sense a_day_late. They might say that, but I think they'd still be wrong.

While all the people who participated in this particular sweep for this particular crime will be exonerated, their DNA is permanently available to the whims of law enforcement.

I'm not planning on committing any crimes in the future, but if I do, I don't want to hand the police or DAs my convinction by participating in a sweep for another crime I know I didn't commit.
posted by BigFatWhale at 6:59 AM on April 18, 2005

I like DNA sweeps. Criminals = bad. Locked up criminals = good.

There are slippery slope arguments and stuff but having lived in a police state (Japan) for 8 years, I gotta say I don't mind giving the cops the tools that help them lock up the bad guys.

In Japan, they have the cops stop by your house once a year for an interview. You'd think that would be offputting, but after a couple of times it was kinda cool.

Obviously people afraid of the slippery slope to totalitarianism have legit fears, but AFAIAC I have more to fear from some asshole stealing my bike or my car radio, ya know?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 7:06 AM on April 18, 2005

I'm not planning on committing any crimes in the future, but if I do

that's the issue, of course, the bleed from legit crime solving to general omnipresence a la Minority Report. As humans we kinda appreciate the slack inefficiencies in the system. When I had to give my fingerprint to the state to get my DMV card 7-8 years ago, Pink Floyd's 'Welcome to the Machine' played in my head.

But coppers and us are mostly on the same side right? At least more than the criminals... Same thing with security cameras.

Given the NYPD's shameful treatment of RNC protestors last year, spose they haven't yet earned the trust necessary for this stuff.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 7:12 AM on April 18, 2005

Personally I think the bigger issue is the freakish behaviour of the police chief, O'Keefe. Not a man I would want to have access to my DNA sample.
posted by fshgrl at 7:53 AM on April 18, 2005

That's the problem. Not that I plan on committing a crime, but that if my DNA/whatever is on file, and a cop decides for some reason that they want to frame or harrass me (maybe because I didn't agree to go out with him, say)...well, it's a lot easier for him to do so. Maybe Japan doesn't have this problem, what do I know, but we sure as hell do. Lots of bad cops out there. Lots of documented cases of police harrassment. Why should I make it easier for one of them to make my life miserable if they want to?

Cops have enormous power over us, as it is. They know the law, they know how to intimidate you, they have the guns and the jails. It's all we can do to keep the abuses that happen now to a minimum. It always amuses me when someone asserts "Well, I'll never commit a crime, so I'll never have a problem with this!" as though innocent people were never charged and convicted in this country. If your lawyer sucks, or you can' t provide a good alibi, or you were in the wrong place or looked like the wrong guy...the fact that you are actually innocent will not protect you.
posted by emjaybee at 7:57 AM on April 18, 2005

So I suppose you know enough about the science behind the forensic application of DNA profiling to believe it is an infallible tool, Heywood?

Fun fact: There is nothing unique about an individual's DNA sequence. DNA profiling works by looking at the size of DNA sequences at specific locations in the human genome. The idea is, if you look at enough locations, you will come up with a profile for an individual that is not the same as anyone else's profile.

Example: Say we look at one location -- or loci -- between you and me, Heywood. Your values --- because each human has two copies of each gene -- are 127/127. (The numbers are irrelevant for our purposes.) Now say we know that one out of every four people carries a 127 value. Therefore, the chance that I have 127/127 is 0.25 x 0.25 = 0.0625. That's a pretty small probability, but not if we're the two suspects of a crime. However, if you look at enough loci, the products of all those probabilities is so vanishingly small you can determine that it almost certain the DNA profile in the sample -- say, blood from a crime scene or semen from a rape kit -- came from an individual with the same profile. CODIS, the FBI-run databank of DNA profiles gathered from offenders and victims, uses 13 loci, I think.

The theory was that 13 loci would be enough information to ensure that every DNA profile would be different.

Unfortunately, crime labs are already finding individuals who share the same profile.

Adding to this difficulty are the usual problems with forensic evidence: Fraud -- remember that Texas lab tech who falsified a decade's worth of results? -- lab error, contamination...

DNA is hardly foolproof evidence.
posted by docgonzo at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2005

rcade: They had the guy as a possible suspect in April 2002 and knew about his criminal record in Florida, but they took two years to test his DNA?

It's worse than that. They took two years just to *get* his DNA. Then, it took more than another year to get the results:

The DNA sample was taken in March 2004; it took more than a year for the state crime lab to analyze the results. O'Keefe said this was due to a long backlog at the crime lab, which he said was due to a lack of money and staff. He said that it wasn't until last week, on April 7, that the lab analysis was completed, matching McGowen's sample with DNA found at the crime scene.

Good lord. While they were waiting for the lab results on a *primary suspect,* the police had the brilliant idea of - what the hell - doing a massive DNA sweep of a ton of other folks in town? And I loved this:

O'Keefe was asked whether, in the two years it took to get McGowen's DNA, investigators had tried to obtain a sample from any of his criminal cases in Florida. "I'm not going to go there," O'Keefe said, declining to answer the question. "I'm just not going to go there."

Well, I'll go there. What an idiot. Can't wait to find out if there was easy-to-ship DNA evidence from one of those cases. Wasn't one of the arguments for the sweep that it was a last resort, and that the cops were stuck? Next time the issue of DNA sweeps come up, I'm going to be sure to remember it was a blatant lie in this case. That police chief needs to be fired.
posted by mediareport at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2005

DA, not police chief, sorry. According to the 3rd link, it took them four months just to *send* the sample to the lab. Yeesh.
posted by mediareport at 8:16 AM on April 18, 2005

Oh, and having-the-profile-but-not-testing it was one of the reasons Paul Bernardo got away with his evil.
posted by docgonzo at 8:17 AM on April 18, 2005

mediareport: Although I don't know the details of this case, the chief would not have needed the evidence itself from Florida to compare it to his guy, just the 13-loci CODIS values, which is about a 2kb text file, easily sent by email...
posted by docgonzo at 8:19 AM on April 18, 2005

But coppers and us are mostly on the same side right? At least more than the criminals

The criminals is you, me, poor ol' Jacko (scroll down) and anyone else they decide has been sticking their fingers in the wrong pies. And the net gets bigger and the mesh finer all the time.
posted by TimothyMason at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2005

If your lawyer sucks, or you can' t provide a good alibi, or you were in the wrong place or looked like the wrong guy...the fact that you are actually innocent will not protect you.

This is a good point. In the USA, we have an adversarial system (you take your lawyer and I'll take my mine and let's duke it out). Often times (I am convinced) a prosecutor is not all that concerned if he is prosecuting the guilty party. He is concerned more about presenting a strong case and chalking up another win for "his side." He figures, let the jury and the system decide the rest. Of course, there have been cases of downright corrupt police and prosecutors planting evidence as well, so that's another thing to worry about.
posted by a_day_late at 8:53 AM on April 18, 2005

These sorts of DNA sweeps are not, of course, really even new. I believe the first took place in 1987 and was documented in Joseph Wambaugh's book The Blooding. I'd encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the book -- the conversations they were having then sound a lot like the conversations we're having now, nearly 20 years later.
posted by anastasiav at 9:03 AM on April 18, 2005

Often times (I am convinced) a prosecutor is not all that concerned if he is prosecuting the guilty party. He is concerned more about presenting a strong case and chalking up another win for "his side."

There's no convincing necessary; here in North Carolina, we've seen a string of recent death row cases in which prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense in order to get their win for "our side." In the most famous, prosecutors somehow forgot to tell the defense about multiple interviews with people who saw the victim alive after the alleged murderer had been jailed for another, minor offense. In other words, the murder happened outside while the accused was locked up in jail. He spent 9 years on death row anyway.

And, of course, prosecutors are almost never held accountable for this kind of crap. Random DNA sweeps are hardly a tool you want in the hands of folks who already seem far too willing to abuse their power, with few consequences.
posted by mediareport at 9:52 AM on April 18, 2005

mediareport, I should be shocked, but I am not. I wonder if it's different in other countries/cultures.
posted by a_day_late at 11:30 AM on April 18, 2005

I wonder if it's different in other countries/cultures.

Different, yes, but not necessarily better. My understanding is that your prosecutors are political animals; is that so? The English Crown Prosecutors are not hoping to use their job as a springboard to political power (but that doesn't mean they are not open to political influence - see the case of Kamel Bourgass), and neither are the French 'juges d'instruction'. And of course, neither of them are involved with death row cases, which makes a great deal of difference.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:58 PM on April 18, 2005

While I agree with the basic and very American attitude that the government is not to be trusted (which is why we have the Bill of Rights), there is another thing about this story that disturbs me.

" 'I'm not going to go there,' O'Keefe said"
"...the authorities declined to give details of how many men had been swabbed and how many had said no."

To cases where "authorities" declined to answer specific questions from The People.

In these times I have grown very sensitive to government people who seem to feel that they can pick and choose what questions get answered. It is clear evidence that these officials need a very serious reminder as to just who the hell they work for. Further, the American people need to remember just who the hell THEY are, and what this whole mess is supposed to be about.

This whole government thing, its a loaded mess that can blow up in your face! You have to watch those boys, cuz like servants everywhere, they will steel the spoons and then lie about it, if you aren't looking. Our system is failing and we are to blame, because We the People aren't doing our part, of watching the bums to keep them honest.

I just heard today that Bush has decided to no longer publish some terrorism report, since 2004 was the worse one ever, and it makes him look bad. A perfect example. Can't allow that kind of crap from the servants people! You let your servants get away with stuff they will walk all over you!
posted by Goofyy at 4:36 AM on April 19, 2005

Thanks for that docgonzo, I had a vague idea how DNA matching worked but that really cleared it up.
posted by Mitheral at 11:16 AM on April 19, 2005

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