Familial DNA is such a powerful forensic tool that it triggered the arrest of the suspected Grim Sleeper rapist in Los Angeles after 25 years as a cold case. Now Virginia is moving to use the technique to nab the East Coast Rapist, whose DNA has connected him to 19 attacks in four states.
The effective yet controversial method identifies suspects through the DNA of a close blood relative who has already been in the criminal justice system after being arrested or convicted. Only two states -- California and Colorado -- currently use it but a more widespread movement to use familial DNA appears to be gaining momentum.
The Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys last week asked the state's Department of Forensic Science to use familial DNA to crack the case of the East Coast rapist, who has attacked women and girls in Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland since 1997. Prosecutors passed a resolution that also asks the Virginia General Assembly to approve any legislation necessary to permit the forensic laboratory to conduct familial searches.
"He's a serial rapist who strikes frequently and, while this may not locate him, it's certainly worth taking a chance," said Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who aims to prosecute the most recent known attack on three teenage girls trick-or-treating near their homes in Dale City last Halloween.
Meanwhile, last week on Capitol Hill a bill was introduced to authorize the FBI to use its national database for familial scans. Rep. Adam Schiff D-Calif., who sponsored the Utilizing DNA Technology to Solve Cold Cases Act, said, "Searching the national database would increase the capacity of law enforcement to solve crimes, taking murderers and rapists off the streets and keeping our families safer."
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was arrested in the Grim Sleeper case after a computerized search revealed that a DNA sample collected at one of the serial murder crime scenes was a near match of DNA that was collected from his son when he was arrested in a separate case. It was the first major break in the case that involved 10 murders over 25 years.
But some states -- including Maryland, where the East Coast Rapist has struck -- have outlawed using their DNA databases for familial searches. That's why Schiff's bill instructs the FBI to create a system whereby a state can request a familial search of the national DNA database. Without access to a national database, it is much more difficult to catch a predator who committed crimes in multiple states.
"If the Grim Sleeper's son had been arrested and jailed in Nevada, no match would have been made," said Schiff, since California is only authorized to search its home database.
The East Coast Rapist preyed on at least 19 women in nighttime attacks near major highways over the past 13 years. His attacks began in Maryland, moved into Virginia, then up to Connecticut and Rhode Island and back to Virginia. Authorities say he stalks and studies his victims, apparently attacking them in neighborhoods he knows well. He knows when they are most vulnerable, like when they are home alone with their children or failed to lock windows or doors.
"He's like a lion looking for prey," one of his victims, a woman who was raped in her Leesburg, Va., apartment in 2001, told the Washington Post.