Familial Searching Solves Cold Cases—At What Cost?

A cold case that had stumped investigators for nearly 41 years was solved last month. The 1976 sexual assault and murder of Karen Klass, ex-wife of Righteous Brother’s singer Bill Medley, shocked her Hermosa Beach, CA community and captured the public interest. Failing to make any arrests for decades, detectives were able to use DNA evidence to eliminate suspects in 1999 but were unable to find a database match. In 2011, investigators decided to try a new technique called a familial search and, after a few attempts, successfully identified the perpetrator.

Familial searching (FS) involves taking a DNA profile obtained from a crime scene and comparing it to profiles in CODIS and other databases to identify male relatives. The DNA profile of an immediate family member, such as a sibling, parent or child, can provide a match that generates new leads for law enforcement. Detectives can then collect additional evidence to narrow down that new pool of individuals to a single suspect.DNA-Handcuffs-double-exposure-R2

Last May I wrote a blog featuring a Q & A about FS provided by Mr. Rockne Harmon, a respected member of the forensic community and passionate advocate for FS. Supporters, like Harmon, and opponents agree that this method of obtaining matches to DNA evidence has demonstrated scientific precision and successful outcomes, as in the Klass case. However, it is still considered controversial and most states have not implemented specific policies regarding the application of FS to criminal investigations. So why isn’t the use of FS more widespread?

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DNA Typing: Useful Tool to Solve Crimes or Invasion of Privacy?

DNA in a test tubeThis year marks the tenth anniversary of the complete human genome sequence. The Human Genome Project revealed a surprising fact: Only 1% of our genome encodes proteins. This equates to a paltry 20,000–25,000 genes. The function of the other 99% of our DNA remained a mystery. Shortly after the sequencing was completed, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) launched a new research project, termed the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE), to identify DNA elements and try to find a purpose for the other 99% of our DNA. This project has contributed greatly to our understanding of the human genome, as documented in the 30 ENCODE-related papers published in Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology in 2012 (see the Nature web site. However, the ENCODE project is being used in an unforeseen way: to support an appeal to the recent US Supreme Court decision about the constitutionality of collection and analysis of DNA from arrestees.

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