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State to double crime searches using family DNA

California's success in using 'familial searching' spurs Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris to increase funding for the controversial genetic sleuthing technique in rape, murder and cold cases.

May 09, 2011|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Lonnie Franklin Jr., 57, appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court with his attorney Louisa Pensanti. Franklin was charged in the Grim Sleeper killings after a familial DNA search pointed to his son, who had been convicted of a felony weapons charge.
Lonnie Franklin Jr., 57, appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court with… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

A young man followed a woman into a coffee shop as she prepared to open for business at 6 a.m. He put a knife to her throat, sexually assaulted her, barricaded her in a walk-in refrigerator and grabbed cash from the register before vanishing.

The March 2008 attack near the Santa Cruz Harbor in a low-crime neighborhood unnerved the community and spawned an intense police hunt.

"It is the kind of attack that communities most fear — a stranger attacking somebody who truly is just an innocent victim going about their lives," said Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark.

Police dogs, fliers containing a composite sketch of the suspect and a search of the DNA offender database failed to net a suspect — until the state earlier this year traced the suspect through the DNA of his father, a felon whose genetic profile was stored in the database.

Although such genetic sleuthing, known as familial searching, remains controversial — California is one of only three states that permit the technique — Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris has increased the budget to double the number of such searches and reduce a DNA backlog.

"California is on the cutting edge of this in many ways," Harris, who replaced Jerry Brown as the state's top law enforcement officer in January, said in an interview last week. "I think we are going to be a model for the country. I really do."

California's early success with familial searching — it led to the arrest of the suspect in the Grim Sleeper serial killings last summer — has spurred calls for using the science to trace criminals nationwide. Virginia recently joined California and Colorado in permitting such searches.

Some advocates of familial searching even point to the military's identification of Osama bin Laden as evidence of the effectiveness of using DNA from relatives to determine identify.

"If the military is using indirect methods to identify Osama bin Laden, then why should it not be used to identify murderers and rapists in Kentucky?" asked Harvard geneticist Frederick Bieber, who has written papers on the scientific underpinnings of familial searches.

Civil libertarians want familial searching reserved for the most serious crimes because it puts an offender's entire family under scrutiny. The criminal database also contains a disproportionate number of DNA profiles of racial minorities, making them more likely to be captured by such searches.

Peter Bibring, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, worries that officials might skip precautions now in place as familial searches become more routine. The American Civil Liberties Union wants those precautions, now part of a state protocol that calls for a variety of checks, codified by law so that an attorney general could not change them at will.

"If police start using this for every crime under the sun, they are not going to be as attentive to the safeguards," Bibring said.

So far, California has limited familial searches to sexual assaults and homicides. The Santa Cruz case, in which there was a single victim, sat unexamined for months.

Forensic scientists instead worked on higher-priority police requests for familial searches of serial criminals and on cold cases — old crimes that have never been solved, said Jill Spriggs, head of the state's Bureau of Forensic Services.

In announcing the nation's first comprehensive familial search policy in 2008, then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said the searches would be used to track rapists and killers.

The state's protocol limited the technique to crimes that stumped police, posed "critical public safety" risks and involved DNA from a single source. Mixtures of DNA from more than one person are trickier to analyze.

In interviews, state officials would not rule out using the technique to solve crimes other than rapes and slayings, nor did the officials flatly oppose enshrining the rules for such searches in a law.

But the expense of such searches is likely to limit their uses. Each now costs about $20,000, a significant amount even though the state's familiarity with the process has shaved the price.

"We want to keep it to violent crimes right now until this is litigated," Spriggs said. She noted that the state has four cases "in the hopper waiting to go."

"They are all violent crimes," she said.

No one has sued to stop familial searching, although a challenge of the state's collection of DNA from people who have been arrested but not yet convicted is pending in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The state does not permit familial searching in the arrestee database, a sign of concern that the technique could make it more legally vulnerable.

California's Justice Department receives a handful of police requests for familial searches in some months, and in others it gets none, Spriggs said. The state is working on its 18th request, she said.

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