California Ups Funding for Controversial 'Genetic Sleuthing'

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Crime families, beware: A new technique for identifying criminals is on the rise, the L.A. Times reports, and the method relies on testing for familial DNA. When police find DNA at a crime scene but can't match it to a potential suspect in their databases, some of the nation's forensics experts have been conducting what they call "familial searches," designed to see whether the person's DNA has any relatives in the criminal database. Identifying family members can, these scientists argue, make it far easier to track down suspects from the crime scene. The first tests began in 2008.

The ACLU has voiced concerns about how the test "puts an offender's entire family under scrutiny." Another obstacle remains financial: Each familial search currently runs around $20,000. Only three states permit this controversial form of investigation so far, but California -- which allows the "genetic sleuthing" in sexual assault and homicide cases and reports an 11% success rate -- just increased the state's funding for the procedure in order to double the number of tests conducted:

Police dogs, fliers containing a composite sketch of the suspect and a search of the DNA offender database failed to net a suspect -- until the state earlier this year traced the suspect through the DNA of his father, a felon whose genetic profile was stored in the database.

Although such genetic sleuthing, known as familial searching, remains controversial -- California is one of only three states that permit the technique -- Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris has increased the budget to double the number of such searches and reduce a DNA backlog.

"California is on the cutting edge of this in many ways," Harris, who replaced Jerry Brown as the state's top law enforcement officer in January, said in an interview last week. "I think we are going to be a model for the country. I really do."

California's early success with familial searching -- it led to the arrest of the suspect in the Grim Sleeper serial killings last summer -- has spurred calls for using the science to trace criminals nationwide. Virginia recently joined California and Colorado in permitting such searches.

Some advocates of familial searching even point to the military's identification of Osama bin Laden as evidence of the effectiveness of using DNA from relatives to determine identify.

Read the full story at the Los Angeles Times.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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