A masked robber bursts into a bank, brandishing a gun.
A terrified teller hands him a bundle of cash. Within seconds,
he is gone. Witnesses cannot describe the robber’s
face, but tell police that he wore a blue hooded sweatshirt
Although they have no physical description of the suspect,
investigators locate critical evidence outside the bank:
a blue hooded sweatshirt, a glove, and some of the money
stolen during the robbery. The most crucial piece of evidence,
though, is silently tucked away inside the hood of the sweatshirt:
two human hairs. They are analyzed and found to match a
suspect’s mitochondrial DNA.
Police charge the suspect with armed robbery. At the
trial, he denies committing the robbery, and points a finger
at his half-brother on his father’s side. With no
eyewitness identification, the jury at the suspect’s
trial is left with a single question: does the DNA evidence
establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
Forensic DNA analysis is increasingly presented at trials.
While police, lawyers, and judges may be familiar with the
methods used to collect, analyze, and interpret DNA evidence,
the learning curve for the group whose opinion matters most
in the courtroom—the jurors—may be daunting.
The cover story in this issue of the NIJ Journal
discusses findings from a study that explores how jurors
interpret complex DNA evidence and how certain tools can
help them better understand DNA. NIJ-funded researchers
conducted a mock jury trial and examined whether innovations,
such as giving jurors a DNA checklist or notebook of information
prepared before trial or allowing jurors to ask questions
or take notes would improve jurors’ grasp of DNA evidence.
The researchers also propose steps to help ensure jurors
have the necessary tools to comprehend what can be the most
important evidence in a case.
I want to acknowledge the contribution of former NIJ Director
Sarah V. Hart on this project. Sarah’s support was
a vital reason for its success.
Also featured in this issue of the Journal is an
article profiling several NIJ-funded studies that are developing
forensic markers to help determine when elder abuse has
occurred. The dearth of research on this topic makes these
studies essential to the success of efforts to prevent this
abuse and prosecute those who commit these crimes.
Is a child at greater risk of being placed in foster care
if his or her parent is incarcerated? What will the criminal
justice system look like in the next few decades? And how
can research on prostitution help solve homicide cases?
This issue of the Journal explores findings from
research on these topics.
The breadth of these articles exemplifies the wide-ranging
scope of NIJ’s research and our commitment to improving
the criminal justice system. I hope you will find this issue
of the Journal interesting and informative.
Glenn R. Schmitt
Acting Director, National Institute of Justice