Aug. 9, 2010 -- 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.
The Quest To Use DNA Tool To Hunt East Coast Rapist
In his first known attack, he rode a bike and wore a ski mask when he attacked a 25-year-old woman at gunpoint in Forestville, Md., on Feb. 19, 1997. The same man's DNA tied him to the knifepoint attack on a mother of four in woods near a bus stop in Fairfax, Va., a few days after Christmas 2001. The rampage moved up to New England, where a 27-year-old woman awoke Jan. 10, 2007 to find a man in the bedroom in her New Haven, Conn., home and was then assaulted.
In his most recent attack on the three trick-or-treaters in a wooded ravine in northern Virginia, he raped one and was moving on to the next when the third teen dimmed the light on her cell phone and blindly texted seven people, including her mother, typing: "911 cvs pls noww man with gun." Before he could get to his third victim, police sirens scared off the rapist.
The rapist wielded a handgun or a knife in several attacks, a screwdriver and broken bottle in others.and after some assaults, he left feces near the crime scene. He is described as 6-foot tall trim black man in his 30s who smokes, has a smooth voice, often wears black hats and camouflage clothing and once had a chipped tooth.
One thing all sides agree on is that familial DNA is a effective tool for catching criminals. So why isn't it being put to work in more states?
"Ignorance, apathy," said Rock Harmon, the former prosecutor whose cases included the O.J. Simpson murder trial and who was instrumental in getting California forensics experts to employ familial searches. "You have something that could be so good. But it's pretty esoteric. You have to understand it to move it forward and not too many prosecutors do."
Critics say the push to use familial DNA is the first step down a slippery slope of eroding privacy and civil rights.
"These really, really gruesome cases make the most powerful case for using the method but that doesn't mean it's fair and equitable," said Erin Murphy, a leading DNA legal expert and professor at New York University's School of Law.
It would be fair only if every American submitted a sample to a DNA database, she said. That way the familial scans would not just include blood relatives of people who had been arrested or convicted, a group that primarily includes black and Hispanics. But there is a good reason why there is no movement toward an all encompassing DNA database for every U.S. citizen.
"People don't want the government to have the key to their genetic existence. That shows how important privacy is to people," Murphy said. "Right now, as a society, we decided that people who are law abiding don't need to submit DNA to a database. [Familial DNA searches are] a back door to subvert that. It's now true only if you're not related to someone who forfeited their DNA. It's guilt by association."
Both sides have strong arguments, said David Lazer, a political science professor at Northeastern University and editor of the book "DNA and the Criminal Justice System." On one hand it is a effective tool that could stop a violent serial criminal from striking again, he said. On the other, it risks "incorporating millions of people into the database who would otherwise not be in the database," just because a blood relative has run afoul of the criminal justice system, he added.
"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."
Use of Familial DNA Moving at Glacial Pace in U.S.
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."