‘Mona Lisa,’ others deserve to rest in peace

By Tom Joyce

August 10, 2013

I consider graves to be sacred. When visiting a cemetery, I go out of my way to keep from stepping on someone’s burial plot.

Others might say, what’s the difference, these are dead people? Yet I have a deep and abiding respect for final resting places (pardon the pun). This dates to my early teen years when I regularly mowed a family cemetery, and developed a knack for learning where head and foot stones were and to negotiate them like a ballerina in a minefield.

Which leads me to today’s column topic — the highs and lows of DNA testing.

In many ways, it has been a wonderful thing. However, as is the case with other powerful tools, DNA testing has been abused at times, with the latest example involving none other than the famous Mona Lisa painting.

As every student of science knows, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule that basically provides a unique biological blueprint for every man, woman and child on Earth. This is similar to fingerprints, only cooler from a TV crime-fighting standpoint, as highlighted on those “CSI” shows.

In the past 30 years or so, DNA testing has been used to solve all kinds of major crimes which would’ve gone unpunished otherwise. It allows substances such as blood, semen, skin, saliva or hair found at a crime scene to identify the matching DNA of a perpetrator.

After it was developed in 1984 by a British geneticist and applied to forensic science, the first person to be convicted of murder using DNA profiling had the fittingly ominous name of Colin Pitchfork, an English chap who raped and murdered two girls.

On the other side of the legal coin, DNA technology has cleared persons wrongly convicted of heinous crimes decades ago. Recently that was true for Andrew J. Johnson, who was imprisoned in Wyoming for 23 years on a 1989 rape case, until this past spring after new testing of DNA evidence revealed he was innocent.

Others besides Johnson, now 63, have spent much of their lives behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Closer to home, there was the Darryl Hunt murder case in Winston-Salem, in which DNA technology exonerated Hunt in the death of a newspaper copy editor for which he was wrongly convicted in the 1980s.

Although some of these individuals have received financial compensation, I don’t know that there is any price to adequately make up for such injustices. It’s just sad.

But almost as sad is the frivolous ways in which DNA is used to solve a seemingly never-ending array of history’s mysteries. A first cousin of History’s Mysteries Complex is Conspiracy Theory Syndrome, which refers to the notion that any famous person ever killed in a sensational way either (a) didn’t die at all or (b) was killed by someone other than who is historically believed to have done so, and/or in a different manner.

One of the first such mysteries surrounded whether or not the “real” Jesse James was actually buried in Clay County, Mo., in 1882. Some people held the belief Jesse’s death was a hoax and he actually lived to a ripe old age under another name.

The next thing you know, heavy machinery was digging up the grave supposedly containing the legendary train robber. As I recall, the testing from that 1995 expedition proved inconclusive due to the badly deteriorated quality of the remains, yet in the meantime a man’s grave — Jesse James’ or whoever’s — had been violated.

Just last month, the body of the Boston Strangler was exhumed, not to disprove or prove his guilt (since Albert DeSalvo did confess to murdering 10 women in the 1960s). The purpose was to obtain tissue or bone samples for DNA testing to determine whether the serial killer also murdered another victim.

Since authorities already were 99.9 percent sure that DeSalvo was responsible, his exhumation seems to have been another excuse for investigators with a morbid curiosity to play around with someone’s remains — albeit those of a despicable human being.

Last December, the bodies of two killers who gained infamy from Truman Capotes’s book “In Cold Blood” were exhumed to determine if they had murdered a Florida family in addition to another killed in Kansas for which the pair went to the gallows.

But what really takes the DNA cake is this week’s disclosure that researchers will open a family tomb in Florence, Italy, which has been concealed for centuries. Why? So bones there can be tested as part of a plan to positively identify the model believed to have posed for the Mona Lisa portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s.

For one thing, who cares if the model was Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, a merchant’s wife who lived across the street from Leonardo, or some other young woman from the period? I mean, the mystery surrounding that work of art, including the seductive smile on the subject’s face, is what has made it one of the world’s most-recognizable paintings.

I would argue that whatever useful knowledge is gained will be offset by the negative impact of desecrating yet another grave site.

Obviously, some scientists and investigators have too much time and money on their hands, resources that should be channelled in a better direction. How would they like it if someone played with their bones?

I believe those who disturb graves for no good reason will pay a price later.

Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or