DNA testing branches out into the family tree

It’s a scientifically proven type of crime fighting that is banned in all but a handful of states. The question is why aren’t more crime labs using it?

It’s called familial DNA testing and it has been widely restricted because it is seen, by some, as an invasion of the privacy of innocent people. Others remain convinced that, since this type of DNA test solves crimes, even bringing notorious serial killers to justice, it is justified.

Routine DNA testing takes crime scene samples of blood, saliva, semen, skin cells and other bodily remnants, and runs them through a national FBI data base called CODIS to see if the unknown perpetrator’s DNA is in the system. If no match is found, the next step could be a familial DNA test. Here’s how it works.

The CODIS system is the largest DNA registry in the world, containing profiles on more than 14 million individuals. So, say a man was arrested in the late ’90s for assault with a deadly weapon and was required to give a DNA sample. His DNA profile would automatically have been added to the CODIS registry, stored there forever. Years later, if police recovered DNA from, say, a murder scene, a familial DNA test could reveal if the murder suspect came from the same family tree as that long-ago assailant. If this test finds a familial match, police can then put a surname to the DNA material. Familial testing can even expose the relationship involved – be it a father-child or brother-brother match. Here’s a real-life case:

When a dogged detective in Wichita, Kan., finally zeroed in on Dennis Radar as the infamous BTK (Bind Torture and Kill) serial killer, he wanted to make absolutely certain he had the man who had murdered 10 people over a 30-year span. Rader had a history of taunting police with cryptic letters and, finally, with a floppy disc full of information about his murder spree. Lt. Ken Landwehr found data on the disc that led to a local church and an author named Dennis. He discovered the church council president was Dennis Radar. Landwehr then got a warrant to obtain genetic material from Radar’s daughter. After using a familial DNA analysis on a 5-year-old pap smear test, technicians concluded the daughter’s DNA profile was a familial match to DNA at a BTK murder scene. It gave Landwehr the evidence he needed to take the serial killer off the streets. Radar pleaded guilty.

Familial DNA testing also brought a California serial killer to justice. For more than 20 years, detectives had been looking for a perp nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper,” named for the long spans of time in between his murders. When a young man named Christopher Franklin was arrested on a weapons charge in 2009, his DNA was routinely registered with CODIS. Later, during periodic re-checks of the Grim Sleeper’s DNA, a familial match popped up indicating Christopher was closely related. The conclusion was Christopher was either father or son of the serial killer. Officers followed Christopher’s father to a pizza place and, upon testing his leftovers, got a familial match to DNA from their crime scenes. Result: Lonnie David Franklin, 57, was convicted of 10 murders and sentenced to death.

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Hundreds more crimes have been solved using familial DNA testing in the United States and the UK, where the technique was pioneered. Yet invasion of privacy concerns continue.

Surely, the Grim Reaper’s son gave up his right to privacy when he broke the law and was required to give a DNA sample. But what about the daughter of the BTK killer? She never could have imagined her routine gynecological test would help convict her father of multiple murders, then be in CODIS in perpetuity.

Advancements in forensic science force us to consider weighty issues. Should someone lose their right to privacy just because a family member becomes a criminal? Or does the public’s right to be safe in their community trump the rights of one person? The debate has kept most states from adopting laws allowing familial DNA testing. So far, only 10 – Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming – allow it.

Study after study has concluded criminal behavior runs in families, either for genetic or environmental reasons. One concluded 8 percent of families account for 43 percent of all crime. Armed with that knowledge, doesn’t it makes sense that we shake a family tree?

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