In late October a Louisiana doctor was found guilty of attempted murder based in part on similarity of HIV strains. Dr. Richard Schmidt was accused of injecting a former lover with HIV-infected blood when she broke up with him. The prosecution charged that the angry physician took blood from one of his HIV patients and injected it, disguised as a vitamin shot, into nurse Janet Allen. Genetics experts, including UT biologist David Hillis, testified that analysis of the patient's HIV strain against Ms. Allen's strain showed them to be related to a degree that approached statistical impossibility unless her infection had indeed come from the patient. While the evidence is not conclusive in itself, it strongly bolstered the prosecution's case.
This is the first time that a DNA analysis of HIV strains has been used in a U.S. criminal trial, but it may become more common. For example, in the infamous Nushawn Williams case in upstate New York, Mr. Williams is accused of infecting numerous young women by trading drugs for unprotected sex, knowing he was HIV-positive. These girls are serious drug abusers, and sex/drugs swaps are commonplace for addicted women. Let's be sure that their infections indeed came from Mr. Williams before proceeding on the present allegations.
Of course, all this is pioneering new territory, and some maps are needed. Dr. Bette Korber of Los Alamos National Laboratory calls for the National Academy of Sciences to develop guidelines such as those recently devised for using DNA fingerprinting as evidence. Given the potential for both criminal and civil application of such analyses, that step ought to be taken as soon as practicable. (For details, see the journal Science, 30 Oct 1998.)
-- Sandy Bartlett, Community Information/Education Coordinator
AIDS Services of Austin
ASA Info Line: 458-AIDS E-mail: ASA@fc.net