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Duke lacrosse case: No DNA, but old-fashioned sleuthing

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For days after charges of alleged sexual assault were leveled at Duke University lacrosse players, their supporters pointed to the lack of DNA evidence as a sign that the case would probably be dismissed.

Instead, a 23-member grand jury in Durham, N.C., on Monday indicted two players on rape charges. The players, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, both 20, were arrested early Tuesday morning.

Some of the key evidence? A set of plastic fingernails the alleged victim said she lost when she was assaulted.

The case has stirred passions locally because of differences of class and race - the accused are white college students, the accuser is a 27-year-old black exotic dancer. But it is also becoming a public gauge of just how important - or unimportant - DNA evidence really is.

Tests that pinpoint humans' unique genetic fingerprints are often overplayed as a forensic tool, experts say. Especially in violent crimes, old-fashioned gumshoe investigations, convincing witnesses, and believable testimony still rule the jury room, they add.

"Certainly this tale that juries are a lot stricter in terms of the kind of evidence they demand before they convict sounds good, but I'm not sure there's any hard proof of that," says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, author of "Killer on Campus."

Noting that nurses found evidence that the woman was sexually assaulted, "there is lots of physical evidence in this case, but the question now becomes tying it to those particular [men]," he says.

Two-thirds of homicides are solved without DNA evidence, Mr. Fox says. A similar percentage of rape cases also go forward without DNA evidence, said Durham district attorney Mike Nifong.


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