Familial DNA Searching Wins Over Skeptics, Solves Cases

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A man roamed Sacramento for six years, raping women as they walked to work or headed home in the dark. To keep them from fighting back, he smashed their heads with rocks and wrapped his hands around their necks. He threatened some with a gun. Police were unable to identify him even though they had his DNA from the crimes. Desperate for a break, they checked a database of convicted felons, but came up empty-handed. Finally, they searched for a partial match to see whether he had a relative in the database. They got lucky. The man had a brother in custody, which led to the assailant. The “Roaming Rapist” is one of a handful of cases California authorities have solved using a controversial technique that scours an offender DNA database for a father, son, or brother of an elusive crime suspect, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The state’s early success using familial DNA searches to identify the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer led Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck to predict that the method would “change the way policing is done in the United States.” Civil liberties groups expressed alarm, saying the searches raised significant ethical and privacy concerns. Some questioned their legality. Since then, familial DNA has gained wider respect. Eight other states have followed California’s lead, formally embracing the technique as a crime-fighting tool. Though many opponents still express concerns, California’s approach has won over some previous skeptics who say they are impressed with the state’s strict policies limiting its use and the measured successes. Using the method helped detectives in the state identify two murderers, including the Grim Sleeper, and five men wanted for sexual assaults, according to the attorney general’s office.

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