By CRG Staff

For almost thirty years, the Los Angeles Police Department was stumped by the killings of mostly poor black women by a serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper.” Then police used DNA taken from one of the crime scenes and cross-referenced it with the DNA of convicted criminals utilizing a controversial new technique called familial DNA searching. Familial DNA searching operates off the principle that when there is a partial (not exact) DNA database match to a crime scene sample there is a likelihood that the sample comes from someone related to the perpetrator.

They hit with a close match, a man who had been convicted of a felony weapons charge. The convicted man's father then came under suspicion. DNA was lifted from a slice of pizza from the father. When that was found to match evidence from the killings, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., 57, was arrested and charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

Familial DNA searches target potentially millions of individuals that police know are innocent and therefore have raised serious civil rights and privacy concerns. In particular, the technique has raised concerns that DNA testing will fall disproportionately on the shoulders of black and Latino populations and lead to even greater racial disparities in the criminal justice system, which arrests and imprisons vastly more African-American and Latino men than other groups (who are therefore more likely to appear in DNA databases). Considering that familial DNA searches have very low success rates—it had been tried unsuccessfully several times before in California—the practice appears disproportionately out of touch with democratic values.

The irony, here, is that Lonnie David Franklin Jr. is a convicted felon and should have been in the database himself to begin with and arrested as a result. The fact that he wasn't is indicative of the already overtaxed and underfunded forensic systems. Without restraints—there are currently no statutory limitations on familial DNA searches—there are no guarantees that any safeguards used in this particular case will be replicated among the many police departments that will use this technique once it is legitimized.

Singular cases make bad precedent. As the collection of DNA by law enforcement officials has greatly expanded over the last decade, we need a much larger national discussion before sanctioning familial DNA searches for widespread use.      

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