Investigations into the spectacular heist at Berlin's luxury department store KaDeWe have run into a problem: The suspected robbers may be identical twins. That means that the traces of DNA found at the crime scene could be useless under German law.
Germany's Federal Statistical Office is a constant source of news. And sometimes it's even good news. In early January, the bureau's "News of the Week" announced that the national number of multiple births had increased to 22,400 in 2007. Among those, 21,600 were twins. Germany's Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen must have been pleased.
But in other government departments, the subject of twins is a bit of a sore spot. The reason can be traced to Abbas and Hassan O., brothers from a large Lebanese family from Lower Saxony, who are suspects in a spectacular heist at Berlin's famous department store, Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe).
The duo, together with an unidentified third man, are thought to have climbed onto the roof and into the luxury department store in the early morning hours of Jan. 25. Police investigators believe the masked men lowered themselves into the store's main hall, evading motion detectors, and broke open countless display cases. The thieves made off with watches and jewelry worth millions of euros.
So far, there has been no official confirmation that Abbas and Hassan O. are indeed identical twins. Photographs of the two, though, would appear to support the assumption. One official told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "It's impossible to tell them apart. To me, it's obvious that they are identical twins."
Investigators identified the brothers using clearly identifiable traces of DNA from a glove found at the scene of the crime, according to police. Berlin's Office of Criminal Investigations dispatched a special team who arrested the two roughly one week ago at a gambling arcade in Lower Saxony. It looked almost as though the case had been solved after just two and a half weeks. Now, though, the remaining hurdles appear higher than first thought.
For starters, the third burglar is still on the loose and there is no trace of the loot. Then there's the fact that the DNA, which ordinarily would serve as powerful evidence, may prove worthless in obtaining convictions for the KaDeWe case.
It is impossible to distinguish between the DNA of identical twins using the kind of genetic analysis typically used in law enforcement, according to SPIEGEL ONLINE research. Furthermore, German law limits the amount of genetic analysis that can be carried out by investigators. For the "problem case from Berlin," as forensic doctors have dubbed it, it isn't nearly enough, experts say.
Under perfect laboratory conditions it would be possible to distinguish between the DNA of twins, experts say, and several research teams worldwide are working on the problem. But the method has not yet been perfected. Moreover, these methods are not admissable as evidence under current German law, according to one scientist.
"Monozygotic twins can only be identified by their fingerprints," an expert explained in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. "That's why this case is unprecedented in Berlin's criminal history." According to law, each of the three men must be individually proven guilty. This might be difficult in the case of the O. brothers -- especially since no additional evidence has been found.