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'Grim Sleeper' case raises privacy concerns over use of DNA

'Grim Sleeper' serial killer case was broken when authorities used DNA taken from the suspect's family members. Is it a breakthrough in police science or an invasion of privacy?

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / July 8, 2010

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, and LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck announce the arrest of Lonnie David Franklin Jr. on suspicion of carrying out the 'Grim Sleeper' serial killings.

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To break the "Grim Sleeper" serial killer case in California, authorities used a controversial new law that allowed them to take DNA from the suspect's family members. The evidence led to the arrest of a man suspected of murdering at least 10 women in Los Angeles over 25 years.

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Is it a breakthrough in police science? Or does it have the potential for privacy invasion? Such questions are now being debated by law enforcement officials and legal scholars.

Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was arrested July 7 on multiple murder counts after the state DNA lab uncovered a link between murder scene material and Mr. Franklin’s son, Christopher.

Last year, Christopher was convicted of a felony weapons charge and his DNA was collected and sent to the state DNA data bank. Initial searches to find the “Grim Sleeper” suspect under the new program that same month failed to find a relative in the database. A second search this spring was successful.

At a press conference Thursday, the mayor, police commission president, Los Angeles County sheriff, victims’ family members, and detectives all lauded the new procedure.

'This will change the face of policing'

“This will change the face of policing in the United States,” said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, speaking of the new technique. California became the first state to adopt the new search program in 2008, and it has been used only 10 times since its inception.

“The suspect would still be at large except for the familial search program,” said California Attorney General Jerry Brown.

Here’s how the procedure works: Crime scene samples are compared to the DNA of convicted offenders in the state database to see if they match. Forensics experts examine how many of the DNA markers are shared and how rare the markers are.

“Now we’ve proven how important this forensic technology is by tracking down a suspected serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles for more than two decades,” said Attorney General Brown. Still, he acknowledges criticism of the technique based on privacy concerns.

“In the face of a multitude of objections, we’ve crafted a balanced policy to respect the rights of citizens and at the same time deploy the most powerful DNA search technology available,” he said, emphasizing that familial DNA searches are done under rigorous guidelines and that they are only allowed in major, violent crimes when there is a serious risk to public safety.

But law enforcement specialists around the country are wondering about the moral and ethical aspects of this new method of solving crimes.

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