Ever since a whistleblower pointed out that there might be some serious flaws in the DNA analyses performed by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the crime lab has been in a tailspin. Its leaders are fighting to maintain accreditation, and the Broward state attorney’s office has been forced to reopen as many as 2,000 closed cases.
One change so far? They are starting to use a relatively new type of forensic software called STRmix that deciphers DNA evidence previously considered too complex to accurately interpret.
But as Buzzfeed News reported earlier this year, the main problem with STRmix and other DNA-matching software programs is that hardly anyone knows how they work. That’s by design: The companies claim their methods are trade secrets and have been fighting to keep source codes under wraps. As a result, defense attorneys aren’t able to have experts independently verify the results.
It’s not hard to imagine how this could go wrong. If the software identifies the wrong culprit, who’s going to know? And what if there’s a glitch or a technical malfunction?
Also, STRmix is a relatively new technology, and there’s an ongoing debate over whether it should be admissible in court. So far, there have been two major rulings: one in favor, one against.
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The first took place last December, when a Michigan judge decided to allow a DNA sample that had been taken from a lost shoe and analyzed by STRmix into evidence in an armed robbery case. That DNA analysis ended up being a crucial factor leading to El-Amin Muhammad’s conviction, which resulted in a 25- to 38-year prison sentence.
Then, in August of this year, a judge in upstate New York ruled against the use of the software in a controversial case involving the murder of a 12-year-old boy. Oral Nicholas Hillary, a former soccer coach and Jamaican immigrant, is being accused of strangling Garrett Phillips, the son of a woman he dated. Police have testified that there’s little to no physical evidence against him. And the whole thing has turned into such a fiasco (featuring a whole lot of open racism) that the New York Times did a 5,000-word feature story about it. Meanwhile, prosecutors have been so desperate to link Hillary to the crime that they attempted to use STRmix to analyze tiny scrapings from Garrett’s fingernails, which they then claimed matched his DNA. The judge didn’t buy it.
BSO has not responded to questions about the use of the STRmix, including how much it cost. The software is still somewhat outside the mainstream: According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , only nine crime labs in the entire country are currently using it. An additional five use TrueAllele, a competing program.
Whether it will end up being challenged in Florida courts, as it was in New York and Michigan, is an open question.