DNA meets human rights
Conference looks at technology’s role at home, abroad

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs


DNA fingerprints of a victim, a crime-scene specimen, and samples from three suspects.

02 May 2001 | Forensic anthropologists from some of the world’s most notorious killing fields and a California man who served 14 years in prison — until genetic evidence proved his innocence — offered compelling testimony at an international conference on DNA technology held on campus late last week.

The two-day public event, “DNA and Human Rights,” explored uses of genetic testing to investigate mass graves abroad; identify the disappeared and victims of political kidnappings; and solve crimes and exonerate the wrongfully accused, including Death Row inmates, in the United States.

Thursday’s sessions focused on the international context, Friday’s on use of DNA in the U.S. criminal justice system.

According to Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center, a sponsor of the event, attendees also met privately over the weekend to brainstorm ways that human rights workers in the poorer nations might gain access to DNA technology common here.

Prosecutors, forensic scientists, FBI employees and public defenders were among the varied speakers on the program.

In riveting testimony, rape survivor Jennifer Thompson described how a man broke into her Burlington, N.C. home and sexually assaulted and terrorized her during her senior year in college. She carefully studied her assailant — with the aim, she said, of later identifying the man.

Her identification and testimony sent suspect Ronald Cotton to prison for 11 years — until DNA testing of body fluids left at the crime scene proved his innocence.

The existence of the powerful new forensic tool raises many ethical and civil rights issues explored at the conference — among them how the wrongfully convicted, proven innocent by DNA testing, end up behind bars in the first place, and the uses and potential abuses of DNA databases.

“We’re trying to develop ethical and moral frameworks to fit with the development of this technology,” said Deirdre Mulligan, an expert in privacy issues at the School of Law.

Conference sponsors included the School of Public Health, the College of Engineering, the Institute of International Studies, the Human Rights Center, the Open Society Institute and the Open Society Archives.

A DNA and Human Rights Web site — — that includes conference proceedings will soon be available.

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