Familial searches of DNA databases

Autor:Erin Murphy
Cargo del Autor:Professor, NYU School of Law
Páginas:221-240
RESUMEN

The continued growth of forensic DNA databases has brought about greater interest in conducting searches for "familial", "kinship" or "partial" matches. Whereas a typical database search seeks the source of a stain by finding an exact match between a known person and a crime-scene DNA sample, familial searching instead looks for partial matches in order to identify potential relatives of the... (ver resumen completo)

 
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Familial searches of DNA databases
ERIN MURPHY
Professor, NYU School of Law
ABSTRACT: The continued growth of forensic DNA databases has brought
about greater interest in conducting searches for “familial,” “kinship” or “partial”
matches. Whereas a typical database search seeks the source of a stain by find-
ing an exact match between a known person and a crime-scene DNA sample,
familial searching instead looks for partial matches in order to identify potential
relatives of the source. Familial DNA searches have long been conducted in the
United Kingdom, and there has been increasing interest in the technique in the
United States and in other nations. This chapter, which is adapted from a longer
article titled Relative Doubt: Familial Searches of DNA Databases (109 Michigan
Law Review 291 (2010)), argues against the practice of familial searching on a
variety of grounds, including claims related to equality, accuracy, privacy, and
democratic accountability. However, in the event that arguments to prohibit the
practice prove unpersuasive, this chapter sets forth recommendations for restric-
tions on familial searches that might ameliorate their possible iniquitous effects.
I. INTRODUCTION
DNA databases are best known as a tool for linking a crime-scene sample
to a known offender, thereby identifying the perpetrator of the crime. But
another kind of database search is also possible: one that uses DNA databases
not to find exact matches between crime scene samples and known offenders,
but rather to find partial matches. At times called “familial searches” or “kin-
ship matches,” these partial matches are useful because they may indicate
that the known offender is related to the perpetrator of the crime. Partial
matches are thus essentially investigative leads: they suggest to law enforce-
ment that it might prove fruitful to pursue further the relatives of the partial-
ly matching offenders. If successful, a lead ultimately results in identification
of a relative and confirmatory DNA testing that establishes that the relative is
in fact the source of the crime scene stain.
Although familial searches have recently garnered greater attention, the
practice has existed from approximately a decade. In fact, the first forensic
222 Erin Murphy
use of DNA typing was in a familial context. In an immigration case in the
United Kingdom, officials used genetic typing to “test of the truthfulness of a
claim to family connectedness.”
1 The first formal familial database search,
however, did not occur until 2002, when investigators pursued the perpetrator
of a series of rapes in the 1970s. 2 The search proceeded in a somewhat unor-
thodox fashion: investigators had compiled a list of potential suspects based
on various conventional investigative methods, and one of those listed was a
man by the name of Joseph Kappen. 3 Further investigation revealed that Kap-
pen had since died, but a familial search of the UK national database revealed
that his son shared certain genetic characteristics in common with the crime
scene samples. Although the lack of an exact match (as well as the son’s age)
ruled him out as the perpetrator, it did suggest the viability of a possible
familial connection. Based on this information, investigators received permis-
sion to exhume Joseph Kappen’s body, and subsequent testing revealed a
match. 4
More recently, in a high profile case in the United States, investigators in
California conducted a conventional familial search, this time for a serial
killer dubbed the “Grim Sleeper” by the press. Investigators had unsuccess-
fully searched the national DNA database for an exact match to the crime
scene evidence, and had even once conducted a familial search of the state
database that proved unproductive. However, in April of 2010, a second
search of the state database with the Grim Sleeper profile revealed a partial
match to a recently convicted offender. Investigation of this lead led to iden-
tification of the offender’s father as a possible suspect based on geographic,
demographic, and other information. After a sting operation in which officers
surreptitiously collected a piece of pizza discarded by the father/suspect, tests
revealed a match to the crime-scene samples, and the suspect was arrested
and charged with the crimes.
Cases of this kind reveal the power, and allure, of familial search meth-
ods. But they are also deceptive. First, they obscure the serious practical,
ethical, and legal issues that familial search methods present. Second, they
may imply that the method is simpler or more effective than experience
reveals. I fact, generating a useful partial match search entails close attention
to the technical details of the search parameters, and often also requires addi-
1 Robin Williams & Paul Johnson, Inclusiveness, Effectiveness and Intrusiveness:
Issues in the Developing Uses of DNA Profiling in Support of Criminal Investigations, 34 J.L.
Med. & Ethics 234, 242 (2006). Kinship connections have of course also been used to esta-
blish identity in missing persons cases.
2 Id. at 243. A year later, UK authorities conducted another high profile familial
search, this time successfully locating a lead and thereby apprehending a young man who
threw a brick off of an overpass, causing the death of the driver after a heart attack. Shel-
don Krimsky & Tania Simoncelli, Genetic Justice 64 (2011).
3 Id.
4 Id.

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