Shaking the Family Tree to Solve Crimes

By Diane Dimond

February 18, 2017 6 min read

It's a scientifically proven method of crime fighting that is banned in all but a handful of states. Why aren't more crime labs using it?

It's called familial DNA testing, and it has been widely restricted because some see it as an invasion of innocent people's privacy. Others remain convinced that it is justifiable since it solves crimes and even brings notorious serial killers to justice. You decide.

Routine DNA testing takes samples of blood, saliva, semen, skin cells and other bodily remnants from a crime scene and runs them through a national FBI database called the Combined DNA and Index System, or CODIS, to see whether the unknown perpetrator's DNA is already in the system. If no match is found, the next step could be a familial DNA test. Here's how it works.

CODIS is the largest DNA registry in the world, containing profiles on more than 14 million individuals. 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, to be stored forever. If police were to recover DNA years later from, say, a murder scene, a familial DNA test could reveal whether the murder suspect came from the same family tree as the assailant. If the test were to find a familial match, police could then put a surname to the DNA material. Familial testing can even expose the familial relationship, be it a father-child or brother-brother match. Here's a real-life case.

When dogged detective Lt. Ken Landwehr in Wichita, Kansas, finally zeroed in on Dennis Rader as being the infamous BTK Killer (bind, torture and kill killer), he wanted to be absolutely certain that he had the man who murdered 10 people over a 17-year span. Rader had a history of taunting police with cryptic letters and, finally, with a floppy disk full of information about his murder spree. Landwehr found data on the disk that led to a computer at a local church. He discovered Rader was the church council president. Landwehr then got a warrant to obtain a genetic sample from Rader's daughter. After using a familial DNA analysis on her recent Pap test, technicians concluded that her DNA profile was a familial match to the DNA left at one of the BTK Killer's murder scenes. This gave Landwehr the evidence he needed to take the serial killer off the streets. Rader pleaded guilty, sparing the community a long, painful and expensive trial.

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," who was so 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 2008, his DNA was registered in CODIS. Later, during periodic rechecks of the Grim Sleeper's DNA, a familial match popped up indicating Christopher Franklin was closely related. The conclusion was that Franklin was either the father of or the son of the serial killer. A detective posed as a busboy at a pizza place, and upon testing a partly eaten slice Christopher's father had left, a familial match to the crime scene DNA was found. As a result, 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin was convicted of 10 murders and sentenced to death.

Hundreds more major crimes and cold cases have been solved using familial DNA testing both here in the United States and in the U.K., where the technique was pioneered. Yet criticism about the invasion of privacy continues.

Surely, the Grim Sleeper'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 likely never could have imagined that her routine gynecological test would be used to convict her father of multiple murders and then stored in CODIS in perpetuity.

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

Study after study over the years has concluded that criminal behavior runs in families, either for genetic or environmental reasons. One study concluded that only 8 percent of families account for 43 percent of all crime. Armed with that knowledge, doesn't it make sense to shake the family tree as a last resort?

To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, "Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box," is available on Amazon.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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