Guilty as kin

Staff ~ The Telegram
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

There's no doubt that technology is playing a larger and larger role in solving crimes. DNA evidence has convicted many, and even freed the innocent in some cases. Cellphone tracking, advanced forensics and a whole host of analyses have brought science into the courtroom with devastating effect for defendants - it's hard to defend yourself against a huge weight of empirical evidence, to the point that science often counts more in serious cases than other testimony.

Blood spatter analysis, tire track analysis, paint chip analysis - the list is almost endless, and to the layman juror, it's often like seeing a magic bullet in action. It's one thing to argue that a witness is wrong or is lying; it's something else again to argue that all of science is somehow mistaken.

There's no doubt that technology is playing a larger and larger role in solving crimes. DNA evidence has convicted many, and even freed the innocent in some cases. Cellphone tracking, advanced forensics and a whole host of analyses have brought science into the courtroom with devastating effect for defendants - it's hard to defend yourself against a huge weight of empirical evidence, to the point that science often counts more in serious cases than other testimony.

Blood spatter analysis, tire track analysis, paint chip analysis - the list is almost endless, and to the layman juror, it's often like seeing a magic bullet in action. It's one thing to argue that a witness is wrong or is lying; it's something else again to argue that all of science is somehow mistaken.

Of all of the possible science evidence, though, the elephant in the room is clearly DNA evidence.

Juries who are told that there is a one in 17 million chance that someone else committed a crime - or even that it's a one in a billion chance - are hard pressed to discount that killer kernel of information.

Now, there's a case in California that highlights both the critical role of DNA evidence, and, at the same time, the slippery slope of what can happen when science, fast computers and huge databases are brought to focus on crime.

The hard part is that the crime in question is the arrest of a suspect believed to be a serial killer called the "The Grim Sleeper," who shot and killed at least 10 people in Los Angeles. The "Grim Sleeper" got that nickname from the fact that the killer murdered several people, stopped killing in 1988, and then began again in 2002.

The police arrested Lonnie D. Franklin on Thursday, after crime labs matched his DNA (taken after the police recovered a plate and napkin Franklin threw away after eating a slice of pizza) to old crime scene evidence. All of that just sounds like dogged police work.

What makes the case different is what caused police to be following Franklin in the first place. It wasn't because they had other reasons to believe he was their suspect. It was because his son had been arrested. Christopher Franklin was recently convicted of a felony weapons charge in a California court, and DNA data from Christopher was entered into California's DNA tracking system.

DNA matching showed that the evidence from the murder scenes came from a relative of Christopher's.

Police then narrowed down the possible candidates among the pool of relatives, and started following Lonnie Franklin to get a DNA sample from him.

It's an interesting solution, but also one that raises some critical privacy questions.

Right now, only a few jurisdictions allow familial searches of DNA databases: it's allowed in England, and in the United States, in Colorado and California (where the practice is restricted to serious, hard-to-solve cases).

It is the same old "does the end justify the means" question. And it also raises the issue that, if you're arrested for a serious crime, does your DNA immediately get to serve as an informant for anything else one of your blood relatives might have done? It's a tough question. And more and more frequently, even here, people convicted of serious crimes are being ordered to surrender DNA samples to the court, building databases still further. The only thing that's certain is that, as DNA analysis gets more refined, it is a question society will have to weigh more frequently.

Geographic location: California, Los Angeles, England United States Colorado

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments