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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tracing a crime suspect through a relative

Over nearly two decades, a serial killer has shot and strangled at least 11 people, often dumping their battered bodies in alleyways of Inglewood and Los Angeles.

Most were black women or girls, the youngest just 14. The latest was found last year, shrouded in a garbage bag.

Police have determined through DNA and other evidence that the killings were the work of a single person. But the DNA does not match any of the millions of genetic profiles of convicted criminals in law enforcement databases, and detectives have few other clues.

Now Los Angeles Police Department investigators want to search the state's DNA database again -- not for exact matches but for any profiles similar enough to belong to a parent or sibling.

The hope is that one of those family members might lead detectives to the killer.

This strategy, pioneered in Britain, is poised to become an important crime-fighting tool in the United States. The Los Angeles case will mark the first major use of California's newly approved familial searching policy, the most far-reaching in the nation.

But the idea of scrutinizing families based exclusively on their possible genetic relationship to an unknown suspect makes privacy advocates and legal experts nervous. They argue that it effectively expands criminal databases to include every offender's relatives, a potentially unconstitutional intrusion.

"There is kind of a queasiness about having the sins of your father come back to haunt you," said Stanford University law professor Hank Greely, who supports familial searching despite those concerns. "It feels like we're holding people responsible for the crimes of their family."

Because the technology isn't perfect, families with no connection to the perpetrator inevitably will be investigated, some scientists and legal experts say.

The FBI and California law enforcement officials long resisted the approach, fearful of inciting legal opposition and a public backlash. They yielded only after aggressive lobbying by prosecutors, who pointed to some dramatic successes. [Mark Godsey]
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