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21st Century Criminal Identification Essay Sample

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21st Century Criminal Identification Essay Sample

According to the official website of The Innocence Project, a national litigation and policy organization devoted to the reformation of the American criminal justice system and the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted, the current total of post-conviction DNA exonerations is 218. Sheck and Neufeld (2002) assert that in light of 110 post-conviction DNA exonerations within ten years leading up to September of 2002, there is an alarming concern that needs to be raised regarding wrongful convictions within the American justice system.

What is to be concerned with is not merely the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted but the possible areas of weakness within the justice system that have permitted such wrongful convictions in the first place. It is impossible to blithely subscribe to the notion that the justice system still works but it is not productive to rail against injustices post hoc either. Instead, what is needed is the means to address its weaknesses in the first place so as to reduce, if not eliminate, future wrongful convictions.

            Great potential to remediate such weaknesses lies in technological advances that can help more accurately identify criminals. Between biometric analysis, surveillance technologies and DNA identification lies the potential for empirical consistency in criminal identification. However this is not to suggest that technology automatically makes criminalization infallible, as they all require a judicious understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and the wisdom of knowing how to implement them for their application to be truly legitimate. As The Innocence Project notes, some wrongful convictions have occurred due to a misunderstanding of the limits of science.

            DNA profiling and analysis is currently used within the context of law enforcement in order to identify the individual origin of genetic matter. The purpose is to determine whether individuals may be considered of suspect involvement in a crime scene from which said genetic matter has been obtained. Although DNA sequences among individuals are highly matching, the process of DNA profiling relies on variances which occur on the level of their alleles (National Institute of Justice, 2008).

            Intra-agency databases are necessary to the application of DNA profiling and analysis to the discipline of criminology. In the United States, the COmbined DNA Index System or CODIS, with 5 million records as of 2007, fulfills this role. The CODIS is an electronic database of DNA profiles, quite similar to that of the AFIS or Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Its contents are derived from the aggregate data of DNA profiles obtained by the individual states from individuals convicted of rape, murder and child abuse. As such, it gives law enforcement officers to have quick access to a nation-wide sample of DNA profiles and identify possible suspects even when no suspect has previously been implicated.

            However, reliance upon the CODIS and other such DNA databases can be somewhat problematic.

Still, DNA profiling and analysis is of highly significant use in bestowing some level of empiricism to the discipline of criminology, as far too often the process is confounded by many problematic variables or poor implementation which has led to the aforementioned wrongful convictions. As Alex Steffen (2004) notes, police methodology is fraught with judgment and subjectivity; these two attributes do not necessarily invalidate the entire protocol, but they are too rarely subject to corrective scrutiny.

For example, without proper video or audio documentation of interrogation procedures, it is impossible to review them and identify and flag those false confessions which result from baiting promises, coercive pressure and leading questions. Furthermore, police informants are not measured according to their reputation for providing useful or accurate information. In effect, there is a complete lack of ‘soft science’ consistency in the investigative process.

DNA testing is not perfect. In the case of Herman Atkins, who was convicted of robbery, oral and genital rape, he was linked to the crime on the basis of a criminalist who asserted that Atkins was part of the same genetic demographic of the perpetrator. Said criminalist based this conclusion on semen obtained from the victim’s sweater. As such, Atkins was convicted even though it could not be proven that he was inarguably the rapist, something the prosecution admitted by saying the evidence “excludes a large percentage of the people, and does not exclude him, and that’s corroboration.” The case of Atkins might have gone differently had the jury been sufficiently informed by the areas in which sciences can be inexact, or of all the variables of doubt that exist in presented evidence. While hair samples and semen stains are valuable evidence, it is not without thorough and comprehensive testing that they can be held as inarguable evidence of guilt, as the innocent may sometimes overlap with the perpetrator in these factors.

However, at the very least, DNA profiling and analysis is a step in the right direction in advancing the reliability and validity of criminology. As One Filipino senator opines, “[DNA testing] is not a panacea for all of society’s ills … [but it places] a human face on the statistical probability of error that has always existed in our criminal system” (Balana, 2008).

Another important part of modern criminology is surveillance. While it is all well and good to be able to use biometric techniques such as DNA profiling and analysis and other forensic disciplines to identify suspects, of increasing use is the ability to identify them based on visual evidence gleaned from video recordings and photographic records of the crime, not just in the context of commercial establishments on the receiving end of robberies or rapes in video monitored parking lots, but in the context of white collar crime.

The United States Congress passed the first major surveillance law in 1968, Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, whose intent was to properly define the legal use of electronic surveillance in a law enforcement context while balancing it against the individual interests of privacy, though it did not address video surveillance. However, this oversight was questioned in 1984, and in two years, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which included video surveillance, in order to address it. Like Title III, this act balanced the needs of law enforcement against the individual’s right to privacy under the terms of video surveillance. (Nieto, 1997)

            Video and photo surveillance is useful because it provides on-site visual testimony of the crime that has been surveilled. However, the practical problem which law enforcement officials face is the limits of these videograms and photographs. They cannot elaborate on the nature of events which they record and they cannot provide the depth that can be obtained by witness testimony nor can they comprehensively cover all angles of a crime, even if the evidence is a triangulation of additional photographs and/or video angles or obtained from pan-mounted cameras.

            Furthermore, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act limits surveillance cameras by denying them the ability to record audio, unless law enforcement individuals are able to obtain a warrant which explicitly permits them to do so. Fortunately for law enforcement individuals, public spaces are open game, and not subject to the Fourth Amendment protections of extreme concern to some. The idea is that any event or transaction occurring in such spaces must be recognized as having been “knowingly exposed to the public.” As such, it is not necessary for a warrant to be obtained should anything illegal transpire on public space such as sidewalks and parks. (Nieto, 1997)

            However, the criminological implications of surveillance are becoming increasingly complicated in an age when media recording technologies have become widely available to the average individual. Ian Kerr and Steve Mann (2006) dub this, “sousveillance” or inverse surveillance, in which the individuals who are empowered with surveillance technology are direct participants or observers of an activity. Sousveillance as inverse surveillance emphasizes the need for watchful vigilance to be maintained on the actions of individuals of authority or public figures for the sake of legal protection. It is here where Gibson’s chestnut applies.

            Perhaps the best known example of a case of sousveillance as inverse surveillance which predates the advent of mobile phone camera technology is the Rodney King scandal, in which law enforcement officials were suddenly being scrutinized by the same techniques which they use to implicate others. Jamais Cascio, who currently trades on the neologism ‘the participatory panopticon,’ provides a good example of this:

“At the 2004 Republican convention, … citizen media groups videoed [the] police arrests of protestors. The New York police videotaped the arrests as well, but … the citizen media recordings proved that the police had edited many of their own videos to make the protestors appear guilty. Up to 90% of the arrests were thrown out.” (Cascio, 2006)

Surveillance and sousveillance, the ability for institutions and individuals, authorities and average Joes and Janes to monitor each other effectively means that a more vigilant culture can arise, making it possible for criminal identification to happen on both ends of society.


Balana, C. (2008, August 17) “Bill pushes DNA testing in crimes.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://services.inquirer.net/print/print.php?article_id=20080817-155137

Cascio, J. (2006, November 15) “The New World: The Rise of the New Culture of Participation.” Open The Future. Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://www.openthefuture.com/2006/11/the_new_world_the_rise_of_the.html

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “CODIS – National DNA Index System.” Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/lab/codis/national.htm

Gibson, W. (2003, June 25). “The Road to Oceania. The New York Times.
Innocence Project: http://www.innocenceproject.org/index.php

Kerr, I & Mann, S. (2006, January 3) “Exploring Equiveillance.” On The Identity Trail. Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://www.anonequity.org/weblog/archives/2006/01/exploring_equiv_1.php

Mann, S., Nolan, J. & Wellman, B. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance & Society 1 (3): 331-355. Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://wearcam.org/sousveillance.pdf

National Institute of Justice. “What Every Law Enforcement Officer Should Know About DNA Evidence.” Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/bc000614.pdf

Nieto, M. (1997, June) “Public Video Surveillance: Is It An Effective Crime Prevention Tool?” California Research Bureau. Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://www.library.ca.gov/crb/97/05/

Scheck, B.C. & Neufeld, P.J. (2002, September-October). Toward the formation of innocence commissions in America. Judicature. 86(2). Retrieved August 18, 2008 from: http://www.innocenceproject.org/docs/Innocence_Commissions_Judicature.pdf

Steffen, A. (2004, May 15). “The Innocence Project.” Worldchanging. Retrieved August 19, 2008 from: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//000715.html

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