DNA: A Ticket to Freedom

Imagine being wrongfully convicted of a murder that you did not commit and the only thing holding you to the case is an eye witness statement.

Well, this was all too familiar for Malcolm Bryant.

On the rainy evening of November 20, 1998, Toni Bullock (16 years old) and her friend Tyeisha Powell (17 years old) were confronted by a man holding a knife who dragged them into a vacant lot in Baltimore, Maryland (National Registry for Exonerations, 2016). Powell managed to escape the attack, but Bullock was killed on the scene.

In an interview with police, Powell gave a description of her attacker based on the little time she  spent around him before escaping. From this information, the police were able to put together a composite sketch of the attacker. A friend of the Bullock family came forward claiming that a man seen in Baltimore Center Booking and Intake Center, resembled the composite sketch.

24 year old Malcolm Bryant.

The police presented a photographic line up to Powell, who then identified Bryant as the killer of her friend Toni Bullock. Based on the photograph, Bryant was charged with first-degree murder and the use of an illegal weapon. Even with the defense making claims that Bryant was nowhere near the scene, on August 5th, 1999, Bryant was sentenced to life on the charges of first degree murder and illegal usage of a weapon solely based off Powell’s description of the attacker (National Registry for Exonerations, 2016).

The case was reinvestigated in 2009 by public defender Michele Nethercott and in 2011 DNA taken from the fingernails of Bullock matched a ‘rare profile’ that was not Bryant’s. In 2015, a DNA profile taken from Bullocks shirt was a match to the ‘rare profile’ seen in 2011, which was once again not Bryant’s. A motion for a new trial was accepted and on May 11, 2016, Bryant was exonerated on all charges.

Bryant died in March 2017 of a stroke.

There have been many cases just like Bryant’s, where people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes that they did not commit. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at the Cardozo School of Law, which aims to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes by using DNA profiling. The project also aims to prevent future injustice by reforming the criminal justice system. Thus far, there have been 351 exonerations based on DNA profiling.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017). Almost all the cells in our body have the same DNA which is housed in the nucleus or the mitochondria. The four chemical bases of DNA are adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). Adenine and thymine forming two chemical bonds and cytosine and guanine forming three chemical bonds. The base pairs form the double helix of DNA with a sugar and phosphate molecule attached as the backbone.

DNA analyses on saliva, skin tissue, blood, hair, and semen have been able to solve criminal cases and exonerate those who were innocent of crimes. For example,  if the examiner was looking at just 13 short nucleotide sequences (one billionth of the human genome) for a forensic case in a criminal bureau, the chances of getting a match are about 1 in 75 million (Silz-Carson, 2016). This takes into account that there are variations in all of our genetic sequences, making us unique.

The United States leads the world in incarceration with 2 million people. Of that 2 million, 1% have been wrongfully convicted which translates to 20,000 people (Matt Ferner, 2016). 1 in 25 on death row are likely to be innocent. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Innocence Project, which has been working extremely hard to restore the innocence of those who were wrongfully convicted. With advancements in technology, the usage of DNA in criminal law have made it possible to convict those who have actually committed the heinous crimes and have exonerated people who were convicted based on “eyewitness testimonies”. See how you can get involved with the Innocence Project by checking out the website below.


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”-Martin Luther King Jr.

Cited Sources

  1. Silz-Carson, Steven. “What Are the Odds I Have Identical DNA with Someone I'm Not Related to?” Quora, 2 Mar. 2016, www.quora.com/What-are-the-odds-I-have-identical-DNA-with-someone-Im-not-related-to.

  2. Malcolm Bryant.” Malcolm Bryant - National Registry of Exonerations, Turn on More Accessible Mode Skip Ribbon Commands Skip to Main Content Turn off Animations A Project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School & Michigan State University College of Law, 17 May 2016, www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=4883.

  3. “What Is DNA? - Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/dna.

  4. “The DNA ‘Wars’ Are Over .” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 1995, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/case/revolution/wars.html.

  5. Ferner, Matt. “A Record Number Of People Were Exonerated In 2015 For Crimes They Didn't Commit.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 3 Feb. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/exonerations-2015_us_56ac0374e4b00b033aaf3da9.