DNA 'Near Matches' Spur Privacy Fight

Denver's district attorney wants the DNA profile and identity of a California felon who is a close but not perfect match to the man who committed an unsolved Denver rape, in the hope that the two are related.

The prosecutor, Mitchell Morrissey, wants to use the California man's personal information to track the unknown rapist. Their genetic similarities, he says, suggests the California felon and the suspect are close relatives.

But California Attorney General Edmund "Jerry" Brown is refusing to release the information, citing a need to protect the privacy of the California felon and the integrity of California's database of criminal DNA. Reporting a DNA near-match, said Brown spokesman Gareth Lacy, would be "outside the boundaries" of court opinions that authorize DNA database searching and could prompt a lawsuit.

The standoff between the two agencies appears to be the first but likely not the last such clash over a new DNA technique called "familial searching," says Angelo Della Manna, chief DNA analyst for the state of Alabama and an adviser to the FBI on DNA policy.

"At some point you ask yourself as a scientist not only 'what can the science do?' but 'what are we comfortable with it doing?'" Della Manna said. "We're reaching that point now."

Since 1990, the FBI has maintained a computer network designed to solve rapes, murders and other crimes by matching the DNA profiles of convicts and some arrestees with genetic material found at crime scenes. Each state maintains its own database. They are linked by a computer system maintained by the FBI.

Beginning last July, the FBI has permitted but not required states to share information not only in perfect matches but in cases such as the Denver rape in which DNA similarities suggest that the suspect is a relative.

Supporters see obvious advantage for familial searching. The United Kingdom has used such near-matches since 2002; police there have resolved 15 murder, rape and other cases by tracing the perpetrator through a relative's genetic profile. In Science magazine last year, genetics scholars Frederick Bieber, Charles Brenner and David Lazer projected that familial searching could produce 20% to 40% more "useful leads" if used by American police and prosecutors.

The FBI has used the technique to match DNA from a missing child's parent to unidentified remains held on a national database.

But detractors, such as Tufts University urban studies professor Sheldon Krimsky, say the practice promotes the notion of guilt by association by placing relatives of convicts under "what amounts to genetic surveillance." Because unrelated persons sometimes share genetic similarities, near-match searches can bring back the profiles of dozens of non-relatives, Krimsky says.

Additional genetic testing can keep familial searches focused on a few targets, Morrissey says. Unlike California, he says, Oregon and Arizona have agreed to share information on felons whose DNA was a near-match to suspects in different Denver rapes. When additional testing showed the felons and the unknown rapists were not brothers, the searches were dropped.

"These are cases with no leads, that literally are at a dead end," Morrissey says.

Lacy, the California attorney general's spokesman, says his office will "review and evaluate" its policy against familial searching but is unlikely to change soon.

Debbie Shaw, a rape victim's liaison for the Duncanville, Texas, police department who has worked on DNA cases, says that is "not nearly good enough. Privacy is fine, but what about the rape victim?"