U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said that the justice system must adapt to the potential benefits and dangers of DNA evidence in a speech to a packed ARCO Forum last night.
Reno's address was the keynote of a conference of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, a group Reno created in 1998 to explore the moral, ethical and legal implications of DNA testing in the criminal justice system.
"DNA has forever changed the landscape of the criminal justice system," Reno said.
The attorney general and the highly controversial issue drew a capacity crowd of members of the Harvard community and those at Harvard for the conference itself.
Faculty members said they were excited to have the conference take place at Harvard.
"Bringing the [commission] here to the Kennedy School of Government... combines the world of public policy with the world of academics," said Stanton Professor of the First Amendment Frederick F. Schauer, an academic dean of the Kennedy School who was the evening's master of ceremonies. "It represents the school at its interdisciplinary best."
Reno emphasized the importance of using DNA technology to its full potential while still exercising caution.
"We must recognize that information is the lifeblood of law enforcement," said Reno, a graduate of Harvard Law School. "Today's technology [serves] as an ever-better source."
She said advances in forensics can be used not only to prosecute criminals but also to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted.
"We must not let another day go by if we have innocent people sitting in jail that could be freed by DNA testing," she said.
Reno also highlighted four concerns about genetic testing: accuracy, constitutionality and privacy, relevance to particular cases and public trust.
"DNA is accepted in so many situations, but we must continue to do much more," Reno said.
She said the nation must develop DNA databases, which "tangibly reduces the number of crimes and the number of future victims."
"The bad guys are going to find that there are no safe places to hide," she said.
Reno indicated that such promise cannot be realized until states have adequately addressed all of the implications associated with genetic technology.
"While these DNA databases are powerful forensic tools, their potential remains largely unfulfilled," she said.
The attorney general, who Schauer said is not a "political ally or operative of the president or any party," also stressed the importance of addressing the issue in a nonpartisan manner.
"We must work with Congress to enable them to understand how critical [genetic testing] is in terms of protecting the innocent and ensuring public safety," she said.
Nobel laureate James Watson, who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and poke at the conference's opening yesterday, said he was "moved by Reno's human qualities and regard for democracy." He added that he had never heard the attorney general speak before.
Watson said after the speech that he wants to see DNA technology make people's lives better, but fears its misuse.
Reno's speech came on the second of the conference's three days. The conference has featured dialogue between internationally renowned leaders in public policy, bioethics, genetics and criminal law.
Reno herself was a chemistry major as an undergraduate at Cornell University.
Before last night's address, she participated in a forum with about 20 Harvard undergraduates selected by a lottery.
She said she was inspired by the group's enthusiasm and idealism.
Even though the work of the commission will soon end, Reno said she hopes the analysis of the potential and dangers of genetic forensics will continue.
Consequently, she has asked the National Institute of Justice to convene at an annual conference about such issues.
Reno is finishing the longest term of office of any attorney general since 1829. The nation's first female attorney general, she took office in 1993.
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