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Family DNA checks allowed in criminal investigations

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By Landmark News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia law enforcement officials have a new tool available to help solve serious crimes: family DNA checks.
Such searches involve comparing crime scene DNA against a genetic database for partial matches that can be used to narrow the search for a suspect to a specific family if a member of the gene pool is already in the testing database.
Cross-referencing DNA that way gives forensic scientists another means to check evidence from certain violent offenses against the more than 331,000 profiles in the database.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has authorized use of the technology, which he said can help investigators develop leads and potentially identify suspects.
“It is vital that our law enforcement agencies have every available tool at their disposal to protect public safety and investigate the most violent crimes,” the governor said in a statement.
States already using the technique include Colorado and California, where it led to an arrest last summer in the high-profile “Grim Sleeper” case involving a series of unsolved killings in the Los Angeles area between 1985 and 2007.
Familial DNA testing is not without critics, who worry about balancing privacy rights with public-safety considerations. Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said there’s a place for the occasional use of familial DNA testing.
“At its core, however, it is problematic,” he said, “because it makes suspects of people simply because they are related to someone who has committed a crime. This guilt by genetic association does not fit with our way of conducting criminal investigations, and it has the potential to affect the lives of many innocent persons, who may lose jobs or suffer other consequences simply because they are related to a criminal.
“If this becomes an everyday tool for crime fighting, then every day hundreds of innocent people will become criminal suspects solely because of their genetic makeup,” Willis said.
Initially, officials said, use of familial DNA testing will be targeted. A policy for how it is to be used specifies that a request must come from law enforcement officials working on an unsolved violent crime in which other leads have been exhausted and a public-safety concern exists.
Familial searches could be used in the investigation of serious offenses such as murder or rape after traditional DNA checks have failed to yield any hits, said Peter Marone, director of the state Department of Forensic Science.
That could produce as many as 100 names of people with genetic similarities to the sample tested. After another round of testing to check for family relations, any names still on the list would be forwarded to authorities for additional investigation, Marone said.
The state lab currently handles about 400 cases a month that involve DNA evidence.
Marone said the state forensic department can handle about one familial search a month based on current staffing levels and equipment. Each search can cost as much as $7,500, he estimated.
The software used in familial DNA searches was provided free to Virginia by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, an advocate for the technology who testified in support of it last year at a Virginia State Crime Commission hearing.
Virginia has maintained a DNA database since 1993; searches performed over the years have assisted in nearly 7,000 criminal investigations, according to Department of Forensic Science figures.
People convicted or arrested for certain violent crimes are required by state law to provide a DNA sample for cataloging.