During the press conference in front of Los Angeles Police Department headquarters announcing the apprehension of a suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” case, [the prolific serial killer who had plagued South Los Angeles for some three decades], a media kit was passed out that included handouts exhorting the merits of familial DNA testing, a relatively new investigative technique said to be instrumental in the capture of the suspect, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. Notably present was California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who authorized a genetic search of California’s Offender Database, which yielded a “match” for markers from the Y chromosomes (which are passed down from father to son) of a man convicted of felony weapons possession with a man whose DNA was found on evidence gathered from the homicide scenes. Samples were then compared to those taken from an Orange County pizza parlor visited by the convict’s father, Franklin (who’d been placed under surveillance right after the initial match), and their match facilitated a warrant leading to the arrest.
The initial familial search was conducted in October of 2008 at a cost of $40,000, and yielded no matches, simply because the relative’s DNA was not yet part of the database. By the time of the second search in March of 2010, 17 new potential matches had been added, including Franklin’s son, who ranked as the second most likely match (the first, a female was quickly eliminated because officials determined she had no connection) prior to the final comparison with the pizza debris. In this particular case, utilizing this familial DNA testing has heralded a new breakthrough in the annals of crime solving, which overshadows the fact that DNA testing is as prone to error as any forensic assessment, a point highlighted during the O. J. Simpson trial. Reasons for this include improper collection and analysis of evidence and the possibility of contamination of said materials during breaks within the all-important chain of custody. This latter fact enabled the Simpson defense to neutralize the prosecution’s strongest point by casting doubt about the reliability of DNA collected.
Courtroom dramas strike a cord within the psyche of a public weaned on the exploits of forensic television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation every week, but the similarities between reality and these television scripts deviate significantly.
At this stage in the development of DNA processing, the quality of laboratories across the nation and the level of work done in each varies dramatically. Of paramount importance is the awareness of the rate of error, a factor present in any scientific research, along with the implementation of safeguards to counter these mistakes.
Exacting science is a fallacy that has been disproved even among the sacred cows of forensics, notably when Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield’s fingerprints were initially linked to the 2004 terrorist train bombings in Madrid, Spain before a misstep was uncovered. The laboratory making the blunder belonged to that bastion of law enforcement excellence and propriety–the FBI.
Similar errors have been exposed in such established disciplines as ballistics and handwriting analysis. Thus, it stands to reason that similar lapses will turn up in new methodologies.
The process of identifying a miscreant through his association with another lawbreaker with whom he shares kinship raises insinuations that malicious traits may be inherited or passed down between generations. UCLA law professor Jennifer Mnookin has written extensively on courtroom evidence, particularly the junction at which the law and science meet. This has made her especially aware of the ticklish racial implications this methodology may bring to the forefront, as she expressed in the following quote: “With a familial search, we are using the database to find people who aren’t in the database at all. This raises significant fairness concerns, and possible privacy concerns as well. Moreover, because the DNA database contains disproportionate numbers of racial minorities, compared to the population as a whole, there are especially significant fairness concerns about using this technique routinely.”
Professor Mnookin raises another compelling point–The Bureau of Prisons estimates the Black incarceration rate is as high as 38.5 percent, so there is a possibility the majority of African Americans may be included on future DNA databases because of the misbehavior of others within their family.