EP52: The DNA of a Wrongful Imprisonment (ft. Kimani Boden, Stephen Cordner & Amade M’charek)



DNA offers us the promise of an objective forensic science. Rather than following our own racially-biased hunches, technology can deliver us the unvarnished truth. Yet, we always interpret technology through our own particular lens, and within a society that produces technology in a particular sort of way.  In this episode, we look at how forensic DNA technologies relate to our ideas about race and criminality. We see how DNA led to the imprisonment of an innocent man, Farah Jama. Then, we look at the frontier of forensic DNA and artificial intelligence. A new technique promises to draw an image of a suspect based solely on what we see in the DNA, but critics say these pictures are entrenching stereotypes about race and crime.

  • First (@3:44), Kimani Boden is a Melbourne-based attorney who served as Farah Jama’s appeal lawyer. He takes us through the trial, the circumstances surrounding the story, and the use and misuse of DNA evidence. He points to race as a factor, reminding us that the criminal justice system is rarely as unbiased as some would have us believe.
  • Then, (@20:07) Stephen Cordner is the former director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. He was the head of the VIFM, which oversaw the sexual assault centre related to the case, at the time when this story was unfolding. He discusses what went wrong, how we might be more sceptical of DNA evidence, and how we might prevent similar wrongful convictions in the future.
  • Finally (@27:13), Amade M’charek is professor of the Anthropology of Science at the University of Amsterdam, where she researches forensics and race. She argues that legal systems around the world need to be more critical of forensic science, taking us through the state of forensics and the challenge of new and evolving technologies in the field – including an emergent technology that uses DNA to produce composite images of potential suspects.

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Darts and Letters was hosted and produced this week by Marc Apollonio, who is also our managing producer, with editing from Gordon Katic. Our lead producer is Jay Cockburn. Roland Nadler provided research assistance and David Moscrop wrote the show notes.

Special thanks this week to Julie Szego.

Our theme song and music was created by Mike Barber, our graphic design was created by Dakota Koop, and our marketing was done by Ian Sowden.

This is a production of Cited Media. And we are backed by academic grants that support mobilizing research. This episode was also a part of a mini-series on the state of forensic science. The scholarly lead on that project is Professor Emma Cunliffe.

Darts and Letters is produced in Toronto, which is on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples.