The Case for the DNA Database

When it comes to genetic information, investigators in Israel are much better off than their counterparts in the United States. The detectives on TV's "Law and Order" often need to trick their suspect into leaving a DNA sample on a beverage glass, or take a tissue out of a trash can. In Israel, however, there is a long list of offenses for which suspects - if they are interrogated under caution - are automatically required to provide a sample. The list includes sex crimes, human trafficking, murder and manslaughter, theft, drug-dealing, security offenses and even attempting to commit such crimes or persuading someone else to do so. Any person suspected of these offenses is obligated to provide a sample, even if the evidentiary material contains no biological information for comparison. This is simply in order to enlarge the police database.

The amendment to the law that regularized the establishment of the police DNA database was passed in 2005. Suspects who are not convicted remain in the database for at least seven years. Those who are convicted remain there forever. Attorney Lila Margalit of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) says that recording a person's genetic profile in the DNA database solely because he was suspected of committing a crime is "problematic in terms of protecting human rights."

However the head of the police DNA database, Chief Superintendent Ashira Zamir, believes that it is necessary to expand the list of offenses that require providing biological samples, and to add offenses such as illegal residence, computer crimes and fraud. According to Zamir, illegal residents often commit other crimes and "a lot of pedophiles start out with computer offenses."

When it comes to offenses that are not on the list, investigators resort to tricks like collecting a cigarette butt. However, in this case it will be possible to use a sample that is produced only for the specific investigation, and will not be entered into the database.

The first time an individual is entered into the database, laboratory personnel compare his profile with all the existing profiles from all the crime scenes of recent years. This, for example, is what happened to the 17-year-old Ramat Hasharon boy, from whom the police took a DNA sample for riding a stolen motorcycle. When the laboratory entered him into the database, it emerged that his profile fit the biological material found at the scene of the murder of attorney Anat Pliner in April, 2006. Of course, all genetic material found at a crime scene is compared with the entire database.

The police DNA database has been in operation since the begining of 2007, and thus far consists of only 28,000 profiles. Despite the short time it has been in existence, the database's operators take pride in a record of having solved 300 crimes, among them murders, rapes and the mugging of old people, as well as minor property crimes. The laboratory has also discovered about five cases of identity fraud.

Zamir says that a database is considered to be effective if it contains profiles of 5 percent of the population, as in Britain; in Israel's case this would mean nearly 400,000 profiles. At the database's current growth rate, she says, "I will be a pensioner before there is an effective database."

Zamir believes that it is necessary to add manpower to her department, in part because this would lead to the saving of considerable investigation resources.

How is a genetic profile produced? The staff at Zamir's laboratory use robots to measure the length of 10 DNA segments. The truth is that it is possible to measure the DNA segments without robots, but robots, explains Zamir, do not make mistakes. Since every segment is double, the result is 20 numbers. Together with the information about the individual's sex chromosomes, there are 11 pairs of numbers. This is what is stored in the computer.

Zamir says that the likelihood that two individuals who are not identical twins will have the same genetic profile is one in several hundred million - that is, it hardly exists. Blood is considered a better source for DNA samples, but nevertheless Zamir decided that the default option will be a saliva sample, in part in order to avoid the need for the presence of a nurse or doctor at the time the sample is given. When a suspect refuses to give a sample, a number of hairs are removed by force.

During the past month the police have carried out a large operation to collect samples from 6,000 convicted prisoners. It is reasonable to assume that quite a number of cases will be solved with this population's entry into the database, but Zamir says, "It could take more than half a year to enter them." In the Pliner case, samples were taken from about 500 people. Nearly all of them were not suspects, rather "volunteers," for example offenders living in the area who the police asked to give samples even though they were not suspects. The police promised to use the genetic material only in the Pliner case.

One of the people who gave a sample in this case was a man named Eitan Farhi. Zamir noticed the similarity between his profile and that of an unidentified rapist, who was responsible for a series of sex offenses. In contrast to the U.S., in Israel the "forbidden fruit principle" - that is, the prohibition of the use of evidence that has been obtained illegally - is flexible. The court decided that the public good required that this evidence be accepted, and sent Farhi to 25 years in prison, despite the arguments of his attorney, Hedva Shapira, that "a police force that violates the law is just as dangerous as an offender who breaks the law."

In the U.S. an organization called the Innocence Project examines old cases containing biological material, with the aim of bringing about exonerations. This organization has already achieved 200 exonerations of people who were wrongfully convicted to death or life imprisonment for murder or rape. In Israel, too, there has been an attempt to establish such a project, to which attorney Yoram Sagui-Sachs was partner. He relates that the project examined a few cases and fizzled out. Why? Because in all the cases that were examined, it emerged that the evidence had not been stored properly, and a DNA sample could not be obtained.

Sagui-Sachs believes that Zamir's laboratory should also act toward exonerations, not only convictions.

Zamir says that with the manpower she has, she cannot deal even with all the current cases.