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Can DNA evidence be compromised?

If you watch courtroom and crime dramas, you may notice that DNA evidence is often portrayed as undisputable. In real-life criminal trials, however, the stakes are higher than ever, making it absolutely critical that DNA evidence is properly collected, transported, stored and otherwise protected throughout the process.

Because DNA evidence often exchanges multiple hands and travels through several locations before it can be tested, there is a very real possibility that it may become contaminated or compromised along the way. Rather than risk a severe punishment or lengthy prison sentence over contaminated DNA evidence, it is important to understand how and why evidence may become compromised. This can occur because of:

Flawed collection procedures

Contaminated crime scenes are an all-too-frequent occurrence, and they can result from improper collection practices, such as authorities' failure to wear gloves while gathering evidence, or from other people entering a crime scene area before it can be secured. Even if a member of law enforcement wears gloves during evidence collection, he or she can still cause contamination by sneezing or rubbing his or her eyes.

Exposure to water, heat or direct sunlight

DNA evidence may, too, become compromised if it is directly exposed to water, extreme heat or direct sunlight, again highlighting the importance of how the evidence is collected and stored. Because moisture can damage DNA and render it unreliable, this type of evidence should never be stored in plastic bags, which tend to retain moisture. Evidence can also become tainted if it is left in a hot patrol car or poorly ventilated room, so it is essential that it be promptly stored somewhere dark and cool to preserve its integrity.

Crime lab errors

Crime laboratories, too, are not free from human error and onsite contamination. Contamination can occur if lab employees forgo basic common sense and forget to wear gloves, goggles or lab coats, or if someone who does not have access to a particular area of the lab gains entry. To minimize DNA crime lab errors, laboratories should restrict unauthorized access, maintain separate areas for DNA examination and extraction and maintain detailed logs of everyone who comes in contact with a specific DNA sample.

While DNA evidence is critical in helping identify as well as punish criminals, it is not without its own flaws. If you are charged with a crime because of what you believe is a compromised DNA sample, you may find it useful to contact an attorney with a background in criminal defense.

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