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Trial by jury; not by DNA
Advancements in DNA evidence testing put criminal-justice system to the test.

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Date published: 9/21/2003


THE CASE of Crystal Jacobs' brutal July slaying might have gone unsolved if not for DNA technology. Her family and loved ones have both science and tenacious police work to thank for putting a suspect behind bars.

The list grows longer by the day of alleged killers apprehended--and convicted killers exonerated--because DNA testing of crime-scene evidence identifies or rules out a given individual.

For the criminal-justice community, such incontrovertible evidence is a double-edged sword: It can be a dream come true for closing cases, or a nightmare if authorities haven't gone by the book during their investigations. For the media and the public, it presents the challenge of avoiding leaping to conclusions of guilt or innocence.

Anyone who picked up The Free Lance-Star on Monday, for example, probably exulted that authorities think they nailed the guy who allegedly stabbed Crystal Jacobs to death. No one had reported anything out of the ordinary that afternoon as she wrapped up her day in the post-office section of Earl's True Value Hardware store in the Chatham area of Stafford County. Solid leads were assumed to be scarce.

According to Stafford Sheriff Charles Jett, evidence taken from her body led to a DNA match of the suspect, Antwon Whitten of Dumfries. We can anticipate that once the case comes to trial, evidence such as the suspect's skin cells found under the victim's fingernails will emerge as the key link to proving his identity and presence at the scene. A watch found in the suspect's home, believed to be Jacobs', serves as corroborating evidence.

Even the most airtight alibi springs a leak if a DNA match is established. Circumstantial evidence this is not.

Given the public's abiding trust in science, and knowing that other high-profile cases have turned on such evidence, does anyone believe that Whitten didn't do it? Does the fact that he has not enjoyed the benefits of due process and hasn't had his day in court really matter?

Is there any chance the public (being the jury pool) will keep an open mind when Sheriff Jett expresses his confidence with the case-closed statement: "Antwon Whitten maliciously and brutally murdered Crystal Jacobs--a loving mother, wife, daughter, co-worker, friend, and valued member of this community"?

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