Online DNA Training Targets Lawyers, Judges
by Glenn R. Schmitt
About the Author
Glenn R. Schmitt is the Acting Director of the National
Institute of Justice.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2006 issue
of The Prosecutor, a bimonthly publication
from the National District Attorneys Association (www.ndaa.org).
In today’s criminal justice system, one of the most
powerful tools in the search for the truth is DNA evidence.
But the complexity of forensic DNA technologies, techniques,
and analysis presents new challenges to prosecutors, defense
lawyers, and judges.
As new and more complex types of forensic techniques are
developed, and as the public becomes aware of them, judges
and lawyers are frequently faced with the so-called “CSI
Effect”—inflated expectations by jurors of how
forensic analysis can be used in criminal investigations.
This problem is probably nowhere more pronounced than in
the area of forensic DNA analysis. Continuing advances in
this field increase jurors’ expectations that science
can solve most crimes. The use of forensic DNA analysis
is increasing as States continue to pass laws that expand
their DNA databases to require all felons and, in some States,
even persons arrested for crimes, to provide a DNA sample.
The Nation’s courts are being called upon to adjudicate
an even greater number of cases that involve forensic DNA
evidence, and the officers of those courts are being asked
to use this type of evidence far more often.
To assist lawyers and judges in the use of DNA analysis
in the courtroom, the National Institute of Justice—the
research, development and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department
of Justice—created an online training program, Principles
of Forensic DNA for Officers of the Court. NIJ’s
interactive, computer-based training program discusses DNA
evidence from the crime scene to the laboratory, from the
courtroom to post-conviction testing, and was funded as
part of the President’s DNA Initiative, Advancing
Justice Through DNA Technology. The DNA Initiative
provides operational funding, laboratory capacity-building,
training, research and development, and technical assistance
to help ensure that forensic DNA technology reaches its
full potential to solve crime, protect the innocent, and
identify missing persons.
The 15-module Officers of the Court program covers
a wide-range of topics dealing with forensic DNA analysis,
- The biology of DNA and key issues of how DNA is used
to solve crime.
- The workings of a forensic laboratory and how to understand
a DNA laboratory report.
- Statistics and population genetics.
- DNA analysis, including mitochondrial and short tandem
repeat (STR) analysis.
- The collection of DNA from evidence and suspects.
- Victim issues, such as privacy considerations and testing
- Pretrial evidentiary issues.
- Trial presentation.
- The use of DNA in post-conviction cases.
- Emerging trends in DNA analysis.
Module 13, for example, discusses ways to make DNA evidence
more comprehensible to jurors. It offers a video that shows
an expert witness presenting her background and qualifications
to a jury. There is guidance for formulating questions to
a forensic DNA expert, including sample opening questions.
There is also a discussion on the use of analogies to help
jurors intelligently and fairly evaluate DNA evidence. And
the module addresses pretrial preparation between attorney
and expert to ensure that jurors receive the appropriate
level of technical detail, including testimony on issues
such as the significance of testing results and areas of
Another module in the training program discusses the framework
within which states can conduct post-conviction DNA testing.
For example, hair found at a crime scene that previously
might have been identified only by microscopic analysis
can now be tested using mitochondrial DNA analysis. In addition,
recent technological advances now allow testing of smaller,
limited, degraded, or mixed biological samples. This module
also provides information on the existence, location, and
condition of biologic evidence, and offers guidance on some
of the legal and procedural issues involved in post-conviction
Looking to the future, module 15 examines emerging trends
in DNA analysis and how these may affect the use of biologic
evidence in the courtroom. For example, an increasing number
of laboratories are automating DNA testing procedures to
reduce cost, increase efficiency, and decrease the likelihood
of human error.
Why Online Training?
Online tutorials—sometimes called “e-learning”—can
decrease training costs for judges and public- and private-sector
criminal lawyers. And, as legal professionals gain a greater
understanding of DNA analysis—the most rapidly evolving
scientific method of identification—plea bargains may
increase, leading to administrative cost savings. In fact,
efficiencies may be realized beyond the courts, as more
coordination occurs among requests for DNA testing, pretrial
preparation, and expert testimony requirements.
This training program uses a multimedia approach: text,
images, animations, audio, and video. Some of the Nation’s
top criminal law, forensic science, and e-learning experts
helped develop this training. Although it is designed primarily
for prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges, it is also
an outstanding resource for victim advocates, investigators,
law students, and other criminal justice professionals interested
in this area.
Because the forensic sciences are ever evolving—and
particularly because the general public often misunderstands
the application and utility of DNA evidence—judges
and lawyers must increase their understanding of DNA technology
and how it is used to prove guilt or innocence. NIJ is committed
to developing tools to help them meet that responsibility.
Take the training Principles of Forensic DNA for Officers of the Court.