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Suspicion by genetic association



Suspicion by genetic association

Jacob M. Appel

Friday, March 26, 2010

The advent of DNA evidence in the late 1980s promised to help identify dangerous felons and to free innocent prisoners whose genetic "fingerprints" did not match those found at crime scenes. States started collecting biological samples from arrestees and the federal government created the Combined DNA Index System, which at present contains more than 5 million genetic profiles. Unfortunately, several states, including California, use their samples to conduct searches for partial DNA matches, which can reveal that specific genetic material probably belongs to a close relative of an individual profiled. As a result, the same technology that once held forth hope to the innocent now threatens their most basic liberties.

The science behind familial DNA matching is straightforward. Much as exact DNA matches have been employed to convict rapists and murders, partial DNA matches enable criminologists to home in on relatives of a sample provider with roughly 90 percent confidence that one of these relatives was at the crime scene. Because crime labs perform their analysis on Y chromosomes, only males can be identified through this process.

Last year, in the earliest reported success of such screening, Denver police used the technique to charge Luis Jaimes-Tinajero with a car burglary. First, they attempted to connect blood left at the site of the break-in with samples in the county's database. When they uncovered no precise match, they then looked for partial matches - and found one in Jaimes-Tinajero's brother. A subsequent investigation of the brother's close male relatives led them to the offender - whose DNA proved to be an exact match.

If law enforcement were permitted to use partial matches to aid their investigations, more offenders - some dangerous - would certainly be removed from society. Indeed, in some dead-end cases, such as rapes where all of the leads have evaporated, this extra clue could well prove invaluable. However, crime prevention is not a goal to be achieved at all costs.

Criminals may have no reasonable expectation of genetic privacy, but the innocent relatives of individuals in the database do have a right to be free from excessive investigation. During the process of hunting down guilty kin, authorities will inevitably question fathers and brothers and nephews whose only crime is being related to the offender. Moreover, because those with DNA samples in the database are disproportionately African American and Latino, these communities will bear the brunt of such investigations.

Guilt by association, either social or genetic, is deeply antithetical to American values. Like placing police cameras in our bedrooms or tracking our whereabouts with subcutaneous computer chips, the crime-fighting benefits of partial-match screening are outweighed by the significant social costs.

Colorado began screening for near matches in 2008 and California quickly followed. New York announced it would permit local jurisdictions to screen for near-matches starting later this spring. While the federal government still refuses to make its samples available for near-match searches, states are increasingly entering into reciprocity agreements to share data. The consequence is that more of us are going to have to answer for the conduct of wayward siblings and depraved cousins. In the eyes of the law, familial DNA screening turns you into your brother's keeper.

Jacob M. Appel, M.D. and J.D., lives and writes in New York.