The ABCs of DNA

by Dalia Shehori
© Ha'aretz Wednesday, October 15, 1997

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The process of DNA testing is very complex and would benefit from regulation. But as Dalia Shehori reports, the efforts of one doctor to help the Health and Justice Ministries establish guidlelines were left languishing  
  1. Stones left unturned
  2. How can there be two answers?
  3. The ABCs of DNA (this page)
  4. Funding secured for DNA tests
  5. Dead, but far from buried
  6. More Articles by Yechiel Mann
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  The process of DNA testing is very complex and would benefit
from regulation. But as Dalia Shehori reports, the efforts of one
doctor to help the Health and Justice Ministries establish
guidlelines were left languishing

  The medical literature about DNA testing tells of a boy who was
born in England and went to Ghana to be with his father. A few
years later he wanted to go back to England to his mother,
brother and two sisters. But the British immigration authorities
did not let him in, saying they suspected he was not the woman's
son but her nephew, or perhaps was not related at all. The
family's lawyer turned to Prof. Alec Jeffries, the scientist who
developed DNA matching, and asked him to examine the case.  The
case was considered very complex because there was no way to
obtain blood from the father or the mother's sister. Neither was
the mother sure of the identity of the father. Since half of the
DNA in each of the body's cells comes from the father and half
from the mother, Prof. Jeffries made DNA profiles of the woman,
her son, her two daughers and the appelant. Using the profiles of
the woman's three children he made a profile of the father - by
stripping from each profile anything that was not from the
mother. The profile of the father that emerged matched the
appelant's DNA, proving the child was his biological son. In the
next stage, the professor removed from the appelant's genetic
profile all the DNA that came from the father. What remained
matched the woman and proved she was his mother and not his aunt.

  Dr. Assa Marvad, head of forensic biology for the police, says
that in the case of Tsilla Levine and Margalit Omassi, who claim
they are long-lost mother and daughter, it seems the two genetic
tests that they underwent measured different things. The first
test found there could be a family relationship, the second found
there was none. Legally, Dr. Marvad said, one element that
negates that the two women are mother and daughter is sufficient
to prove they are not.

  Still, the doctor says he would advise Levine and Omassi to
choose a third laboratory - one that, due to the sensitivity and
the emotional residues of the case, is outside Israel. "Not that
I doubt the credibility of the laboratories in Israel," he says.

  The family knows which parameters were checked the first time
at Hassan Khatib's laboratory and which were tested at the
Forensic Medicine Center. Therefore they have a double batttery
of tests that they should take to the third lab and ask to have
repeated. If the laboratory finds on every parameter tested that
there is always a match between Omassi and Levine, then the
relationship will be established. "But if that laboratory finds a
mismatch on even one parameter, then Mrs. Levine, as sad as it
is, is not the daughter of Mrs. Omassi, at least not
genetically," he says. The laboratories considered the most
reliable in the world are the Scotland Yard in England and the
FBI labs in the U.S. There are also very credible private
laboratories.  Dr. Marvad stresses the importance of procedure in
DNA tests because the tests are often open to legal challenge by
experts. In the United States, the FBI has set standards for DNA
analysis in the different states. In Israel, lawyer Shira Dunevitz
tried to spur the authorities to standardize tests to determine
paternity, including the DNA test.  Dunevitz represented a single
woman and her daughter.  The two appealed to the Supreme Court
over a ruling that determined that the man they were suing was
not the girl's father.  The Supreme Court accepted Dunevitz's
argument that the test results used in the case bore the names of
different people and an earlier date than the date the two were
tested. The judges decided unanimously to overrule the earlier
decision and reject the test results.

  Dunevitz wrote to then Justice Minister David Libai and Health
Minister Haim Ramon, on April 9, 1993: "While preparing the case
I discovered the whole matter of medical tests to determine
paternity is not regulated in Israel.  Elsewhere, in England and
various states of the U.S.  there are laws that regulate the
matter and there are clear rules to ensure maximum accuracy in
these tests that decide people's fates." She asked the ministers,
in light of the importance of the tests, to examine the matter
and set regulations. She offered help and the use of her
research.

  The official response was typical. Libai's assistant, Adi
Hadar, wrote back 20 days later to confirm receipt of the letter
and to say it had been brought to the attention of the minister.
That was the end of the Justice Ministry's handling of the
matter. The Health Ministry answered nine months later. The
minister's senior aide, Ronit Paz, asked Dunevitz in January 1994
to provide the material she had offered. Dunevitz did so five
days later. That was the end of the Health Ministry's
involvement.

  In response to my query about the matter two days ago, the
Health Ministry spokesman's assistant faxed me a press release
about the Yemenite children. It said the ministry alloted a
budget for genetic tests for those involved in the search for
their children or parents. It said the ministry will appoint a
committee to recommend standards for licensing laboratories to
handle genetic identity tests.

  Dunevitz says of her offer to ministries: "I gave them a great
opportunity to go straight to legislation. They did nothing. The
Health Ministry said "send material." I did, and nothing
happened. This is not a small matter. The essence of the test is
determining identity - of a baby, of the missing Yemenite
children, of a suspect about to be sent to prison for life. These
things are tremendously important, and that is how the rest of
the world views them."

  Dr. Marvad says there is no law that says which labs can do DNA
tests and what the procedures are. "The guidelines are only being
formulated now in Israel and abroad. I don't know if the solution
is a law. I am not a lawyer, but there has been a lot of progress
in setting the rules." He noted the link made between a father
and a child in paternity tests is much weaker than the link his
laboratory can make between a blood stain left at a crime scene
and a suspect, or between a sperm stain and a suspect.

  The high credibility of the test could open a new path for
convicts who are serving long jail terms but claim innocence -
demand the DNA tests whose results could set them free. In the
U.S.  people have been acquitted and freed on the basis of such
tests. But the prosecution authorities are not enthusiastic about
opening old cases, fearing it might overturn thousands of rulings
and threaten the stability of the legal system.

  In Israel there is a possibility of a retrial if DNA can
provide new facts or evidence. This applies to crimes committed
before the newest DNA tests were used forensic medecine. Today,
Dr. Marvad says, "any biological matter connected in any way to a
crime is taken in for testing. If it can be tested for DNA, it
is. The police open the files and investigate. The only time we
don't do a DNA test is when there is a full confession by the
suspect or another source that supports the suspicion. There is
no point in using such a heavy gun if the picture is already
clear legally. But if there is the least doubt the confession is
true, both sides in the trial will ask for a DNA test."

  DNA testing is going to play a central role in the trial of
Amiram Hochberg, who is charged with the murder of his son's
mother, Shulamit Bleichman, and the murder of her mother Ida
Bleichman. The trial is to open in December, and at the center of
the prosecution's evidence are the findings of a DNA test that
show the blood stains found in Hochberg's car are from Shulamit
Bleichman, whose body has not been found. The defense, says
Hochberg's lawyer Avigdor Feldman, ordered independent DNA tests
from a private expert

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