The use of forensic DNA evidence in effective governance of the local community
STAR SCIENCE - Maria Corazon A. De Ungria, Ph.D. (The Philippine Star) - October 4, 2012 - 12:00am

Among the forensic sciences, the most recently introduced and among the most powerful means of identification is DNA technology. By taking advantage of one’s genetic code, it has become easier to link suspects to a crime based on biological samples found in crime scenes. By taking advantage of the hereditary nature of DNA, it has also become simpler to resolve issues of filial obligation, particularly in matters pertaining to child support or claims of inheritance. However, in order to successfully implement this technology at the local level, support from government and full cooperation of the community must be obtained.

There is an urgent need to familiarize stakeholders from the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government regarding the significance and limitations of DNA technology. For example, local government units should include forensic training in their mass disaster management strategies, if these exist. In disaster situations such as typhoons, flashfloods, fire and vehicular accidents, the identification of the dead has become a very expensive, time-consuming and drawn-out process due to the inability of governments to allocate resources to the identification of the dead during the early phases of rescue. However, after some time, the identification of the dead becomes a primary concern because the persons who survived the disaster need to find their missing kin in order to achieve closure, in the process of rehabilitation. In addition, legal concerns such as the issuance of death certificates for insurance and death claim benefits, inheritance issues, and re-marriage of surviving spouse, will continue to afflict the survivors, thus aggravating their suffering, if the remains of their missing relatives are not located. In a country that experiences an average of 20 typhoons per year, could we not formulate strategies for efficient and cost-effective identification of recovered bodies, for the sake of the living?

In the case of the judiciary, the Rule on DNA Evidence that serves to govern Philippine courts in cases when DNA evidence exists, was promulgated by the Supreme Court in 2007. Based on this Rule, a court order may be issued for DNA testing provided that: 1) a relevant biological sample exists; 2) the biological sample was not tested previously; and 3) that the DNA tests may generate new information that may help in the resolution of the case. However, given this Rule, family courts have not maximized the utility of DNA technology in routinely requiring this evidence to provide support or negate allegations of relationships. With the development of highly discriminatory DNA tests, it is now possible to exclude a man with absolute certainty from being the biological father of a child as well as provide a Probability of Paternity far greater than the 99.9 percent provided for by the Supreme Court to presume paternity. With DNA evidence assisting courts for the early resolution of disputed parentage cases, one expects the courts to better manage their caseloads in a more efficient manner.

Besides disputed parentage cases, courts must also implement the routine use of DNA evidence in criminal investigations. In a country highly reliant on eyewitness testimonies, the need to include objective scientific evidence must be recognized because of the many failures of the system to convict the real perpetrator of the crime. In 2004, the Philippine Supreme Court recognized the shortcomings of the trial courts by reporting the judicial error rate of 71.77 percent in capital cases that it had reviewed (People v Mateo). In 2010, the Supreme Court generated mixed public reactions by overturning the conviction of Hubert Webb and co-accused that was based solely on the testimony of a state witness. Eyewitness testimony is recognized to be the leading cause of judicial errors in the US and elsewhere. Hence, the use of objective evidence for the fair and swift administration of justice is beneficial for the rehabilitation of the victim as well as the protection of the rights of those who have been erroneously accused.

The legislature must also contribute its part in making use of forensic DNA technology for the country. Although the Rule exists to guide courts, the absence of DNA legislation to require law enforcement agencies, and medical professionals when examining victims of crime, to collect and preserve biological samples, is a significant factor in the under-utilization of this technology. Biological samples are needed for DNA testing. Cases such as People vs Hubert Webb et al could have been resolved sooner, rather than later, if biological samples collected from the body of the victim were preserved for subsequent DNA testing. In fact, many inmates in the various Philippine penal colonies continue to claim their innocence, attributing their conviction largely to false testimonies.

For some of these people, there may still be hope. The DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute of UP has been trying to address the issue of wrongful convictions. We have been involved in over 10 acquittals of cases in trial courts because DNA evidence negated witness testimonies, including those of victims. These acquittals strengthened our belief of the urgent need to increase the standards of litigating cases in courts, trial and appellate, by the use of objective evidence. In 2005, we finished a project entitled “Testing the Feasibility of Post-Conviction DNA Testing” funded by the European Commission and with close cooperation with the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG). In this project, we found six capital cases, including death penalty cases, wherein DNA evidence was not consistent with the “facts of the case” as decided by the judges of the lower courts. During all this time we have been discussing the possibility of initiating an Innocence Project Philippines (IPP) with various sectors. In June 2012, a group composed of selected lawyers and DNA scientists met to conceptualized the formation of IPP. IPP will be a network of law school clinics, scientific and academic laboratories and non-governmental organizations that seeks to make justice accessible for wrongfully convicted persons. It may be that DNA evidence may help some of these persons eventually find justice that they have been yearning for so many years. It will be a clear step toward putting science at the service of society that will be initiated by private individuals. It is hoped that the executive, judiciary and legislative take on their own challenges in maximizing the use of forensic DNA technology for the benefit of our local communities.

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The author received the NAST Outstanding Young Scientist Award in 2003 for Molecular Biology. She is the current head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute of UP Diliman and the director of the Program on Forensic and Ethnicity of the Philippine Genome Center. She Ungria has appeared as expert witness in cases involving disputed parentage issues and in relation to criminal cases. She provided her technical assistance during the formulation of the Rule on DNA Evidence and her opinion on different bills regarding forensic DNA technology. The UP-NSRI DNA Laboratory continues to offer its parentage testing and DNA profiling expertise as part of its commitment to serve the community. The laboratory may be contacted at 632 9252965 and

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