The Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit part of team Awarded Prestigious Magic Grant from Brown Institute for Media Innovation

The Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit will support the team awarded a prestigious Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation to compare the results of DNA mixture software used for criminal prosecution.

DNA Unit staff attorney Jessica Goldthwaite is on the team, headed by Jeanna Matthews, an associate professor of computer science at Clarkson University and a Distinguished Speaker for the Association for Computing Machinery, the world's largest scientific and educational computing society.

“These software programs are being used to tackle the most challenging DNA evidence and we have no idea their level of infallibility,” said Jessica Goldthwaite, Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit. “New Yorkers are being sent to jail based on their results, and we must have some level of transparency and accountability. We look forward to analyzing these programs’ methods and how they impact our criminal justice system.”

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is a collaboration between Stanford University’s School of Engineering and the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each year, the Institute awards Magic Grants to foster new tools and modes of expression and to create stories about important contemporary political, cultural or technical issues.

This year, the Institute is awarding nearly $1 million for 12 projects, including developing a database and interactive display connecting deaths in Mexico stemming from U.S. deportations; another project pairs a documentary filmmaker and a theater director to examine the suppression of the African American vote in the 2016 presidential election; and a third develops means for sharing local data on police vehicle stops.

The project, Decoding Difference in DNA Forensic Software, has been awarded a $75,000 grant, is aimed at determining when, why, and by how much certain DNA mixture software programs can produce different results. These software programs tackle interpretation of the most complex DNA evidence tested.  Real world cases have shown one program can include a suspect and another exclude him, yet no systematic study independent from the developers of these programs has been conducted.  This project aims to provide this critical information. 

The project will help answer the call put out by former President Barack Obama’s Council of Scientific Advisors on Science and Technology for independent testing of these DNA software programs.

The project will compare forensic DNA software, moving the story beyond anecdotal examples to a systematic investigative strategy. In the process, the team will explore important issues of algorithmic transparency and the role of complex software systems in the criminal justice system.

The Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit The DNA Unit is The Legal Aid Society's pioneering forensics unit dedicated to ensuring vigorous representation of its clients and fighting to keep unreliable forensic science out of court.  In recognition of the increasing importance of the role of DNA in criminal prosecutions the Criminal Practice created the DNA Unit in 2013.  Comprised of seven full-time attorneys with extensive experience litigating felony cases and a paralegal, the Unit assists the nearly 700 Society staff attorneys representing clients citywide in cases involving DNA evidence.