The Sciences

Gauri Lankesh Murder Probe Is Chance for DNA Bill to Prove Its Mettle

A DNA profile stands for one more strand of knowledge, in addition to existing investigative techniques, with which to bind the truth.

The Lok Sabha passed the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill on January 8 after a threadbare debate about its consent and privacy provisions. While those problems are not insignificant, an ongoing and high-profile criminal investigation might just be what it needs to show how it can be useful.

The Karnataka police’s special investigation team (SIT) has filed a 9,235-page chargesheet against 18 people allegedly involved in the 2017 murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. One of the key pieces of evidence is DNA from a toothbrush possibly used by the man who shot Lankesh, on September 5, 2017.

According to Indian Express, the DNA matches that of Parashuram Waghmore according to an analysis undertaken by the Karnataka Forensic Science Laboratory (KFSL). Waghmore had been arrested in June 2018. A copy of his DNA could have been given to the KFSL, which was then able to match it with DNA obtained from “epithelial cells detected on toothbrush sent in item No. 6 of DNA 376/2018”.

Also read: India’s Blind Faith in DNA and Aadhaar Profiling Will Lead to No Good

The DNA Bill formalises this procedure. Assuming Waghmore is likely to be sentenced to more than seven years in prison, the police can obtain his DNA (with his consent) and, once his DNA profile has been prepared by an accredited lab, upload into a regional or national DNA Databank, also authorised by the Bill.

The use of DNA profiles to identify people relies on unique information obtained from an individual’s DNA. The DNA is a sequence of three billion base-pairs – pairs of specific molecules – that occur a pattern that is 99.9% same for all people. The remaining 0.01%, or about three million base-pairs, possess interesting variations. To quote a previous report:

Among [the 0.01%], there are parts that contain a short combination of [bases] repeated a few times. These are called short tandem repeats. The frequency of their repetition differs from person to person so much so that no two (known) people have the same DNA overall – unless they’re identical twins or are closely related. Identifying this difference forms the basis of DNA profiling, also known as DNA fingerprinting.

The DNA Bill does not specify the number of locations on the DNA from which this information can be recorded. However, J. Gowrishankar, the head of the nodal national lab in charge of DNA-profiling, had told The Wire in 2015 that analysts would record data from 17 locations from each DNA. In other words, two profiles are likely to be alike only if all 17 subsequences are identical.

Irrespective of the exact number of these locations, this is how the KFSL would have identified that the DNA belonged to Waghmore as well.

Waghmore’s toothbrush and other items were found at the residence of a building contractor named H.L. Suresh, whose house served as the hideout. He was arrested in August 2018. Indian Express reported that the SIT also found DNA on a blanket in Suresh’s house that Amol Kale, alleged to have masterminded the plan to kill Lankesh.

The KFSL and the Gujarat Directorate of Forensic Sciences jointly analysed the gait and mannerisms of the killer captured in CCTV footage. According to Indian Express, these also matched someone of Waghmore’s profile.

There have been no reports thus far of the killer’s DNA being obtained from the crime scene – nor that of Ganesh Miskin, the man who allegedly transported the killer to Lankesh’s home.

If Waghmore is convicted, his DNA profile will be stored for posterity in the DNA Databank, unless and until his conviction is overturned. In the latter case, Waghmore will then have to write to the director of the databank to delete his profile or obtain a court order to that effect.

Also read: Four Reasons Why India’s Controversial DNA Bill Should Be Sent to a Standing Committee

At the same time, the ostensible raison d’être of the DNA Bill is to fast-track cases like these. It formalises scientific opinion, cements the policy on use of DNA-based knowledge and, once it clears Rajya Sabha, will carry authority by law. Ultimately, it stands for one more strand of knowledge, in addition to existing investigative techniques, with which to bind the truth.

Assuming the Bill becomes an Act in its current form, police can use it to obtain DNA from convicts (with their consent), and process and prepare it as evidence in court. The Regulatory Board instituted by the Bill will have to ensure the databanks are properly maintained and the labs, properly evaluated.

Finally, since the DNA profiles of Waghmore and his associates will remain in the databank, the Bill’s promoters – including the police – believe cases can be wrapped up faster because they will be able to ascertain the provenance of DNA samples faster.

By these measures, the DNA Bill is a positive development. But on the counts of civil matters and privacy, the jury is still out.