"Sometimes you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe you left a cigarette butt at a place that turned out to be a crime scene. The police might think that butt was left by the perpetrator," said Lazer. DNA gathered from the cigarette could be run in a familial search and, if it matched DNA of a blood relative in the system after arrest or conviction in another incident, "you would be pulled in as a suspect."
Harmon says the anonymous nature of the computer search is enough to make familial DNA tracking fair and to maintain privacy. "All these samples are anonymously coded, no one knows who it is, whether the person is alive or dead. The real message is that when the true relative is not in there, it's not going to falsely target anyone. When he is in there, there is a strong chance he'll be identified."
While acknowledging efforts in Virginia and in Congress toward broader use of familial DNA, he said adoption of the crime-fighting tool has moved at a glacial pace in the U.S.
"I won't even call it on the back burner. This has stayed in the freezer," said Harmon.
In Virginia, prosecutor Ebert hopes a familial DNA search will be the key to unlock the mysterious identity of the East Coast Rapist so he can be arrested before he strikes again.
"It's sort of a new procedure and my way of thinking is that there is no reason why everyone shouldn't use it," said Ebert, who acknowledges privacy concerns. "When you know the same guy is committing these crimes but you don't know who it is, this is a tool that needs to be used."
The director of the forensic science department, Peter Marone, said he was reluctant to use existing software offered by Colorado and wants to investigate other options, raising questions about how quickly Virginia will be able to act. While legislative action is not required for the department to adopt the procedure, he would prefer to move forward after a vote by the Virginia General Assembly due to privacy concerns.
"Personally, I would like a little bit of coverage from the government here. This is a sticky issue. I want to make sure it doesn't blow up on us," said Marone. He said his department will comply with the resolution, but cautiously. "Whether we can do it in some months or whether it will take a year, I'm not sure."
With the East Coast Rapist on the loose, time is of the essence, Ebert said. "The attorneys are going to do everything to push this along. It looks like the governor's office may have to get involved."