Germany is currently re-assessing the regulations for forensic DNA analysis. At the core of the discussion is whether or not to introduce forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP), as well as biogeographical ancestry testing (bga), in the context of criminal investigations (see a recent article by Turna Ray on Genomeweb).
The debate was triggered by the rape and murder of Maria L., a medical student of our university (University of Freiburg) on October 16, 2016. Soon after she was found, speculations that the murder had been commited by “foreigners” began circulating through social media, and soon developed a strong impact on the public sphere in Freiburg. Some weeks later, initiatives and individuals on the far right began to call for the introduction of FDP and bga to identify the “race” of the murderer and to “stop protecting murderers”. This request was soon picked up by police representatives and journalists in the region who claimed that FDP would allow to efficiently narrow and focus the investigation.
On December 3, 2016 a suspect was arrested due to a hair the investigators had located in material from the crime scene. Matching the DNA found on the victims body, the long black hair, which was partially dyed blond, allowed the police to re-view surveillance footage, to identify a young man with a corresponding hair-style, and to arrest him shortly after. The murder suspect turned out to be a young refugee from Afghanistan.
On the day of the arrest, police representatives reiterated their demand to allow for FDP in the future. Guido Wolf, the Minister of Justice, and Thomas Strobl, the Minister of the Interior, of Baden-Württemberg, the federal state Freiburg is located in, announced they would fully support this request and push for a quick change of the German criminal procedure code (Strafprozessordnung, or StPO).
Our Open Letter was published on December 8, 2017 as a scientifically founded response to the one-sided arguments brought forth by police representatives, politicians and journalists dominating the highly charged public debate at that point. It was conceived by an ad-hoc initiative of scholars from the Universities of Freiburg i.Br., Frankfurt/M. and Northumbria (UK).
Originally comprising scholars from Science and Technology Studies (most notably the team of Prof. Dr. Veronika Lipphardt at University College Freiburg that initiated the Open Letter), Bioethics and the Social Sciences, our group has since grown to integrate scholars from Molecular Genetics, Biometrics, Statistics and Biomedicine. While the broad spectrum of members of our initiative allows for a multi-perspective approach to the issues at hand, it does certainly not allow to cover all aspects necessary to take into account when assessing the benefits, challenges, limits and disadvantages going along with FDP. Similarly, however, Forensic Scientists and Criminologists cannot claim to be able to assess all relevant aspects which need to be considered in respect to the proposed bill.
Guido Wolf, Baden-Württemberg’s Minister of Justice, with the support of Winfried Bausback, Minister of Justice of Bayern, have since moved forward to introduce a bill to change the German criminal procedure code with the declared aim to pass and implement the paragraphs allowing for FDP within this legislative period (which ends in July, due to the up-coming German election this fall).
We have accompanied this process critically, by providing e.g. an expert statement at a hearing on FDP held at the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection on March 21, 2017, by asking politicians and media to pay attention to this issue and the complex scientific aspects involved, by media contributions of our own, and by a more extended critique soon to be published on this website.
The proposed bill is pushed through with high speed – not allowing for the scientific, legal and political debate that would be necessary to come to an informed solution. It also neither contains any provision for regulating data-protection and ethical issues, nor for adequate training of law enforcement professionals who will be handed a highly complex investigative tool, which carries with it immense ethical, social and political challenges. Likewise, much of the public debate up until the expert hearing in Berlin was one-sided in its appraisal of the technologies’ great potential, hardly ever mentioning the many open questions, limitations and ensuing risks.
However, very recently, even the international scientific community takes an interest in these recent events in Germany:
- Nature Correspondence. 2017: Germany: Note limitations of DNA legislation. Nature 545: 30.
- Nature Editorial. 2017. Forensics: Germany considers wider use of DNA evidence in criminal cases. Nature 543: 589-590.
Our initiative wishes to strengthen the dialogue between experts from various national and disciplinary contexts, helping to improve the understanding of the technologies and of the significance of balanced expertise in the legislation of forensic DNA analysis.
We therefore demand the involvement of diverse multi-disciplinary expertise throughout the legislative process and for enough time to allow for a substantial public debate on FDP.
This blog contains the public statements of our group, relevant legal and political documents, background information, an overview over the media coverage and a resource section with reading recommendations.
Since our core focus currently is to provide differentiated information for German policy makers, law enforcement and legal professionals, the academic community as well as the broader public, we can only make selected parts of our blog available in English translation. Below you find English translations of the following texts:
- Open Letter on critical approaches to Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP) and ‚Bio-Geographical Ancestry‘ (BGA), 08 Dec 2016