A masked robber bursts into a bank, brandishing a gun. A terrified teller hands him a bundle of cash. Within seconds, he is gone. Witnesses cannot describe the robber’s face, but tell police that he wore a blue hooded sweatshirt and gloves.
Although they have no physical description of the suspect, investigators locate critical evidence outside the bank: a blue hooded sweatshirt, a glove, and some of the money stolen during the robbery. The most crucial piece of evidence, though, is silently tucked away inside the hood of the sweatshirt: two human hairs. They are analyzed and found to match a suspect’s mitochondrial DNA.
Police charge the suspect with armed robbery. At the trial, he denies committing the robbery, and points a finger at his half-brother on his father’s side. With no eyewitness identification, the jury at the suspect’s trial is left with a single question: does the DNA evidence establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
Forensic DNA analysis is increasingly presented at trials. While police, lawyers, and judges may be familiar with the methods used to collect, analyze, and interpret DNA evidence, the learning curve for the group whose opinion matters most in the courtroom—the jurors—may be daunting.
The cover story in this issue of the NIJ Journal discusses findings from a study that explores how jurors interpret complex DNA evidence and how certain tools can help them better understand DNA. NIJ-funded researchers conducted a mock jury trial and examined whether innovations, such as giving jurors a DNA checklist or notebook of information prepared before trial or allowing jurors to ask questions or take notes would improve jurors’ grasp of DNA evidence. The researchers also propose steps to help ensure jurors have the necessary tools to comprehend what can be the most important evidence in a case.
I want to acknowledge the contribution of former NIJ Director Sarah V. Hart on this project. Sarah’s support was a vital reason for its success.
Also featured in this issue of the Journal is an article profiling several NIJ-funded studies that are developing forensic markers to help determine when elder abuse has occurred. The dearth of research on this topic makes these studies essential to the success of efforts to prevent this abuse and prosecute those who commit these crimes.
Is a child at greater risk of being placed in foster care if his or her parent is incarcerated? What will the criminal justice system look like in the next few decades? And how can research on prostitution help solve homicide cases? This issue of the Journal explores findings from research on these topics.
The breadth of these articles exemplifies the wide-ranging scope of NIJ’s research and our commitment to improving the criminal justice system. I hope you will find this issue of the Journal interesting and informative.
Glenn R. Schmitt
Acting Director, National Institute of Justice