Louisiana State Police Crime Lab Considers Controversial Familial DNA Tool

The testing, at least initially, will be reserved for the most violent cases, including killings and sexual assaults, in which DNA was collected from a crime scene but failed to match any of the millions of genetic profiles in the national criminal database.

by Jim Mustian, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / April 18, 2017
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(TNS) -- The Louisiana State Police Crime Lab is preparing to expand its criminal DNA testing to include a controversial technique known as familial searching, a tool that could breathe new life into aging cold cases by identifying close relatives of suspects.

Louisiana intends to join a growing list of states that over the past decade have cautiously adopted the technique, which has been hailed by detectives as a potential game-changer in solving crimes but has been assailed by critics as ethically and legally questionable.

The testing, at least initially, will be reserved for the most violent cases, including killings and sexual assaults, in which DNA was collected from a crime scene but failed to match any of the millions of genetic profiles in the national criminal database.

Joanie Brocato, the State Police lab's DNA manager, said officials hope to acquire software that will allow analysts to scan the database for promising "partial matches," or profiles that share several genetic markers with a suspect.

The analysis focuses on the Y-chromosome, which is passed down along the male line, potentially leading investigators to a perpetrator's father, brother or son.

"It's really about benefiting victims and law enforcement," Brocato said in an interview at the Baton Rouge lab. "Our hope is that we'll have it up and running this year."

State officials apparently have concluded that no new legislation is required for the crime lab to begin familial DNA searching. But last week, state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, introduced a resolution that would direct the lab to study and make recommendations on implementing the testing, citing its potential to resolve cold cases and exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Moreno said she was approached by a rape victim whose assailant has not been identified through traditional DNA testing because his genetic profile was not found in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, the national criminal database known as CODIS.

Moreno said the victim was interested in familial searching and hoped it would provide new leads to solving her case.

"When you're talking about catching rapists, it's not like they do this one time," Moreno said. "If they're not identified and captured, they're still out there and they're going to do it again."

Although proponents tout the crime-solving potential of familial DNA searching, the method has raised a host of privacy concerns in the jurisdictions that have implemented it. The testing can be invasive, critics charge, and in some cases, it may run afoul of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Familial searching differs significantly from traditional DNA testing in that, rather than directly identifying a suspect, investigators work backward to develop new leads, examining a series of partial matches, or profiles that share a number of common alleles, meaning forms in which a gene for a specific trait can occur.

The testing generates a list of candidates whose DNA rules them out as a suspect but at the same time indicates they may be closely related to the person who committed the crime.

The technique was first employed by law enforcement agencies in Great Britain, where authorities used it to crack a 2003 case in which a man threw a brick through the windshield of a moving car, causing the driver to suffer a fatal heart attack.

Investigators found DNA on the brick but no genetic match for it in a national database of criminals. Rather, they compiled some two dozen similar genetic profiles, including that of the suspect's brother, the closest partial match, and ultimately elicited a confession from the brick thrower.

The best known use of the testing in the United States is the case of Lonnie Franklin, a serial killer known as the "Grim Sleeper" who was sentenced to death last year for killing nine women and a teenage girl in California. In that case, investigators identified strong similarities between crime scene evidence and the DNA of Franklin's son, who had been convicted of a felony weapons charge.

"We know crime runs in families. That's the reality," said Rock Harmon, a former prosecutor in Alameda County, California, who is an outspoken proponent of familial searching. "You're looking at criminal history, geography and trying to focus on which of the family members you can then investigate."

Louisiana, in particular, could benefit from familial searching due to its "incredible number of connected, unsolved homicides," especially involving women, Harmon said.

Among other cases, he pointed to a string of 10 unsolved strangling and beating deaths in Baton Rouge between 1996 and 2002, several of which occurred within a mile of North Street Park.

"Nobody's ever advocated doing familial searching on each and every case," Harmon added. "You're picking the high-end cases."

But critics caution that familial searching expands DNA testing far beyond the function envisioned by jurisdictions that compel criminal defendants to submit DNA samples.

Not only does the technology raise privacy concerns, but it could be misused in the absence of clearly defined guidelines, said Erin Murphy, a professor at the New York University School of Law who has written extensively about the technique.

Many states lack formal rules for the use of familial searching by law enforcement.

"I think the chief concern is that it will put people under police suspicion — causing police to investigate people's lives and livelihoods in ways that might be disruptive — on the basis of imprecise genetic information," Murphy said. "People who otherwise would have no reason to be swept up into an investigation will now be the subject of an investigation simply because of this guess on genetics."

As a cautionary tale, Murphy pointed to the case of a New Orleans filmmaker, Michael Usry Jr., whose DNA ultimately cleared him as a suspect in the 1996 killing of a girl in Idaho. Authorities there, after scanning a private DNA database and obtaining a court order for its contents, identified Usry's father as an exceptionally strong partial match to a semen sample left at the crime scene, indicating a close family member of his likely was the suspect.

Investigators ultimately tested Usry's DNA and determined he was not, in fact, the killer, but not before he was misled and interrogated by law enforcement in an ordeal he recounted in detail to The Advocate in 2015.

Brocato, the manager of the State Police crime lab, said a number of steps need to be taken before the lab is equipped to perform familial DNA searching. Aside from acquiring the software, it intends to begin drafting and implementing a series of policies and procedures governing its use.

"The other piece of all this would be a tremendous training effort that would have to take place," Brocato said, referring to law enforcement officials who communicate with the lab.

Local detectives are accustomed to receiving notifications from the lab that a piece of forensic evidence has matched a DNA profile of a known criminal. But familial searching is an altogether different approach to solving crime.

"In this case, we'd be calling with the name of a potential biological relative of a perpetrator," Brocato said.

©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.