INTERVIEW: Controversial familial DNA searches

By Ryan Nobles - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It is a controversial form of DNA evidence, used in only two states. However, Commonwealth's Attorneys in Virginia believe it could be the key to finding the man responsible for raping 19 woman in Prince William County last Halloween.

The technique is called familial DNA. It searches the DNA databases for people related to an alleged suspect, with the goal of leading investigators to the person responsible.

NBC12 legal analyst, Steven Benjamin, has done extensive work on familial DNA. He joined NBC12 on First at Four to discuss its implications.

RYAN: First, explain as briefly as you can how the technique works.

STEVE: The technique, Ryan, is a means of providing investigative leads to law enforcement. It's not evidence. It's not conclusive about somebody's identity, but what we do is permit police officers to go to the department of forensic science and determine a possibility that someone who is in the data bank might have a family member who the police should probably look at as a possible suspect in a case. It's simply a tool. That's all that it is, but it could be a very effective tool to give the police investigative leads in a case where otherwise they have nowhere to go.

RYAN: So it's not something that would ever be used in a court of law?

STEVE: Exactly right. Think of it this way. Think of a community that's being terrorized by a serial rapist for example.

RYAN: Like this case.

STEVE: Exactly right, and the police are out of leads. They don't know what to do, they need help. This is a technology which, if we use, would be able to possibly provide the police with some suggestions. A suggestion, look, you might want to look at -- determine if this man has a brother or a father and if so, take a look at that person, follow them, conduct surveillance, use good police work, perhaps pick up a coffee cup or discarded coke can he's used so you can get his DNA and compare that with the crime scene DNA. It's a tool for investigative leads, one that we're not using and one that I have always felt that we should.

RYAN: Now, are there ways it could be used inappropriately and perhaps to violate somebody's civil liberties?

STEVE: The concern about using this is an unarticulated privacy concern, but folks don't need to be worried about that. This -- you know, if you think, "well, I have a far distant cousin who got in trouble when he was a kid and I don't want the police knocking on my door because of some distant relative." That's just not going to happen. And before we would ever use this technology, I'm confident that policy makers would insist upon establishing protocols and policies to ensure that nobody's privacy rights are invaded. Now, this is an important investigative tool that we owe to the police and to ourselves.

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