The Legality of Familial DNA Searches

As a runner, I’ve often told my female runner friends, “Don’t run alone!” There have been cases of solo female runners being attacked on the lovely running trails we have in and around the city I live in. That advice was exactly what the father of Karina Vetrano gave to his daughter when she went out for a run along the wetlands near Howard Beach, Queens, New York. She was strangled to death and sexually assaulted that day during her run.

The case became an investigator’s nightmare with little evidence except for a stranger’s DNA on the victim’s hands, throat and cellphone. The DNA did not produce a match in any national database and the crime remained unsolved.

Frustration from the local investigative authorities caused them to seek approval to use an unusual search method called “familial DNA searches” to scour the criminal databases to identify likely close relatives of the offender to generate an evidence trail. The New York State Commission on Forensic Evidence, a member panel appointed by the governor, even developed a seven-member subcommittee to develop standards for using such familial DNA searches.

Although the perpetrator was identified eventually through other circumstantial evidence and later by an actual DNA match, the high-profile case spotlighted the potential use of familial DNA searches when DNA could not be linked directly to a suspect.

Such familial DNA searches were first introduced in Britain in 2002 and used for the first time in the United States in a California murder case in 2008, followed one year later as an evidence tool in a Colorado case. Such searches have now become a forensic application in eight states, and it has produced a helpful crime-solving trail in at least a dozen cases in the States over the last ten years. Familial DNA searches now represent a new avenue of evidence gathering in the world of forensic science.

This evidence technique uses a database “hit” of a close relative for unidentified DNA to lead authorities to a possible suspect. The close familial match to a perpetrator’s relative is less of a solid piece of evidence, and rather it represents another lead in cases to a likely suspect.

DNA testing remains the most reliable tool in forensic investigations and has been used not only to identify suspects in criminal cases but also to exonerate the wrongfully accused and convicted. As DNA technology expands from the collection and matching of samples through law enforcement agencies and evolves into DNA collections in the private sector, major concerns have been voiced regarding privacy issues and the potential for misuse.

A recent high profile cold case, labeled as the Golden State Killer, perplexed authorities in California for over four decades. Unidentified DNA that had been linked to at least a dozen murders remained unmatched to DNA in any national database. Authorities finally were permitted to search online genealogy services to match the DNA of distant relatives to narrow down the search for the perpetrator and to eventually link other evidence to identify the killer.

Such online searches are controversial to say the least, and opponents of the techniques site the Fourth Amendment for prohibition of unreasonable search and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause as reason to prevent use of familial DNA searches.

This crime-solving technique, although used in some particularly vexing cases, has not been thoroughly tested in the courts as yet, and it will be interesting to see how the legal issues surrounding this relatively new forensic tool evolve.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
This entry was posted in A How To Blog on Murder Plot Ideas, About James J. Murray, About Murder, All About Murder, Blog Writers, Blogging, Characteristics of Murder, Committing The Perfect Murder, Creating Emotional Drama in a Murder Scene, Cyber Security Issues, Deciding What Types of Fictional Characters Fit Into Your Plot, Designing Murder Plots, DNA Forensic Science, DNA Testing Flaws, DNA Testing Techniques Called Into Question, Familial DNA Searches, How to Choose a Murder Weapon for a Plot Idea, Ideas for Murder Scenes, James J. Murray Blog, Killing Off Characters in Your Novel, Methods of Murder, Murder Mayhem and Medicine, My Will Be Done - A Short Story, New Blog, New Forensic Tools, Plot Development, Plot Ideas and Where They Come From, Plotting Murder Scenes, Plotting The Perfect Murder, Privacy Issues and Online Genealogy Services, Standards for Familial DNA in Criminal Cases, The Science of Murder, Tools of Murder, Unique Murder Plots, Writing Dramatic Murder Scenes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Legality of Familial DNA Searches

  1. wrLapinsky says:

    Jim,
    Another case where technology has outrun legal decisions. We “give” our DNA every time we donate blood, have a blood test or a whole host of other medical tests. In some jurisdictions, police may collect your DNA if you are arrested, and that DNA stays in the system even if you are never charged or not convicted. Would the public be OK if the police could collect DNA from everyone in a vehicle that was stopped for any reason? What if the vehicle was a public bus? How many uninvolved people are at risk by familial matches?
    As our privacy is eroded, the author’s problem may be to figure out how the fictional murderer did the deed without leaving any DNA behind, or leaving someone else’s DNA. Some good mysteries where DNA familial evidence is one critical component may help the public and legislators puzzle this out.
    Walt

  2. The value of DNA is beyond question in defense of the wrongly accused and convicted. Issues of privacy emerge when applications are considered beyond that limited sphere. But then, just as we should not fear photo radar speed control systems if we abide by traffic laws, need we fear broader applications of DNA provided we are law abiding? There is much of merit to be said on all sides of the issue.

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