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July Marks the 25th Anniversary of the First Use of DNA Evidence to Convict a Killer

Twenty-five years ago this month, the first person ever was convicted of a murder through DNA evidence.

These days, it can seem like a no brainer to include DNA evidence in a court case. But, of course, it wasn’t always this way: it was 25 years ago this month that the first person ever was convicted of a murder through DNA evidence.

At PLoS Blogs, Ricki Lewis notes that in July of 1988 George Wesley was convicted of murdering Helen Kendrick, an elderly, developmentally disabled woman. The conviction was based on DNA—Kendrick’s—found in a blood stain on Wesley’s shirt. In the court’s opinion, a judge wrote, “the conclusion was that the DNA print pattern on the defendant’s T-shirt matched the DNA print pattern from the deceased and that the DNA print pattern from the blood of the defendant was different from that of the decedent.”

The trial lasted for months and included testimony from Richard J. Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for discovering split genes. Eventually, the team of expert witnesses convinced the presiding judge, Joseph Harris, to admit the DNA evidence. When it was all over, Wesley was convicted and sentenced to 38 years in prison.

In 1994, New York State’s highest court upheld the use of DNA evidence in Wesley’s case. His lawyers had appealed the ruling, saying that the DNA evidence used against him was not reliable enough. The New York Times reported at the time:

State law-enforcement officials praised the ruling, saying the Court of Appeals had definitively given its approval to a process in wide use here and around the nation that had nonetheless been clouded by debate about the risks of misidentification. They predicted that the techniques, called DNA fingerprinting or DNA typing, will now be used more in criminal trials and may prod development of a statewide genetic database similar to automated fingerprint databases.

The appeals case here made New York the thirtieth state to uphold DNA testing in some form. Since then, a lot has changed. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers could take DNA from anyone under arrest, regardless of whether DNA is relevant to the crime.

Later this month, a plaque will be put up outside Judge Harris’s old courtroom to commemorate the landmark decision, according to WNYT.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Police Can Now Take Your DNA After Any Arrest
This Gun Shoots Criminals With DNA

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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