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Familial DNA is Debatable Procedure

by Andy ThompsonPost-Crescent Media
May 20th, 2014

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Wisconsin has joined a handful of states in allowing familial DNA testing — a powerful but debatable procedure — to identify suspects in murders and sexual assaults, Post-Crescent Media has learned.

“We’re getting to the point where we will start offering this,” said Brian O’Keefe, administrator for the Division of Law Enforcement Services at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “This gives us another way of generating leads for local law enforcement agencies.”

Familial DNA testing, which has generated controversy, is an option for police when a search for a match to a DNA sample comes up empty. The test searches DNA databases for partial matches and allows authorities to expand a search to include relatives of those who are in the databases.

For example, DNA from a crime scene might not match any DNA in state or federal databases, but if the person’s son had been recently incarcerated and his information was entered into a state DNA database, a familial DNA search could lead police to the son, and ultimately to the suspect.

O’Keefe said there are multiple Wisconsin cases under consideration for familial testing, which he described as a “last resort” for investigators.

“This is something that, when we’ve exhausted all leads, it could still give law enforcement a way to go after (a suspect),” he said. “It’s another tool for finding a lead. The familial testing doesn’t tell us who the suspect is. There’s a lot of interviews and work that needs to be done — even with the familial results.

“We’re not giving (police agencies) answers, but leads. Once they identify who the bad guy is, there still has to be an exact match, not just a possible familial match.”

'Fishing expedition'

Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states in the U.S. to approve the testing. California, Colorado, Texas and Virginia have used it to solve old cases.

People who criticize the procedure say it infringes on privacy rights and unfairly targets innocent people.

“We want to make sure our values control the technologies, and not the other way around,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of ACLU of Wisconsin.

Ahmuty said adding the familial DNA option is unwarranted and should have been considered by the state Legislature.

He compared the test to a “fishing expedition.”

While some find the testing to be objectionable, it has solved a number of major crimes.

Breakthroughs on unsolved cases are encouraging, said Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a group that works to exonerate innocent people convicted of crimes.

But Findley has concerns about familial DNA testing.

“It’s a mixed bag, but one I would be very cautious about,” he said of the procedure.

Security, protocols

O’Keefe acknowledged the uneasiness over the testing, but stressed that it isn’t a radical departure from conventional DNA evidence-gathering.

“The push-back is on privacy interests,” he said, “but it’s no different than what is already going on with our DNA collections. We’re still not getting DNA from anybody who did not commit a crime. If you left a semen sample on a rape victim, you abandoned that property.”

O’Keefe said the Justice Department is making sure the software for the testing program is scientifically valid. Police and prosecutors from the jurisdiction where a crime occurred would be required to request the testing.

If it is granted, state officials would work with local police to identify potential suspects based on partial DNA matches. O’Keefe compared it to “building a family tree” from those matches.

Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson views the new procedure as one of an array of investigative measures at the disposal of police.

“When we have a major crime, such as a homicide, you start out with everybody being a suspect, and you’re trying to work down to one person,” he said. “This is just one more tool for law enforcement.”

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