The Virginia Department of Forensic Science has confirmed an arrest resulting from a familial DNA search, a new forensic tool authorized by Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2011.
Officials said that at this point they cannot identify the case or cases or provide other details at the request of a local commonwealth's attorney and the law enforcement agency that sought the search.
Under Department of Forensic Science policy, familial searching is performed only to help solve violent crimes in which public safety remains at risk, other investigative leads have been exhausted, and a chief law enforcement officer makes the request.
Without specifying the type of crimes, Brad Jenkins, program manager of the department's forensic biology section, said last week that there were several cases linked together by DNA that appeared to have been the work of the same unknown suspect.
"We conducted a familial search and came up with a possible relative ... of the perpetrator. Police did their investigation and we did additional DNA (testing) and a person was arrested," said Jenkins, who added that the trial is pending.
Unlike traditional searches that seek exact DNA profile matches, familial searches comb offender databases for near-matches of people who might be a parent, child or sibling of a suspect who left DNA at a crime scene, but whose DNA profile is not yet in a database.
Close to half of the people incarcerated in the United States report they had a close family member who had also been locked up and, presumably, their DNA profiles are also in databases.
Those identified as possible relatives are not suspects, but serve as leads to the guilty via an exact DNA match. Further lineage DNA testing can greatly narrow down the list of possible relatives identified in a familial search.
Because of privacy concerns, familial DNA searching has been controversial. In the U.S., only Virginia, Colorado, California and Texas openly conduct them, so there have been only a handful of cases solved nationally by familial searching.
According to the FBI, the United Kingdom has the most experience in using the technique. From 2003 to May 2011, 200 familial searches had been conducted in the U.K. resulting in investigative information used to help solve about 40 serious crimes.
Familial DNA searching gained national attention in 2010 when it helped nab a suspect in the Grim Sleeper slayings in Los Angeles. In that case, the DNA profile of a man arrested in an unrelated incident indicated that he was a possible close relative of the Grim Sleeper killer who left his DNA at murder scenes.
The arrestee was singled out as a relative from an offender DNA database of more than 1 million people -- four times larger than Virginia's. Police determined that the man's father was a possible Grim Sleeper suspect and surreptitiously obtained a DNA sample from him that matched DNA from the crime scenes.
Among those urging Virginia to start using the technique was Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, who believed it might lead to the identity of the East Coast rapist.
A suspect was arrested in Connecticut in the East Coast case, but not by using familial searching. Nevertheless, Ebert said he believed that had familial searching been available earlier, the rapist would have been stopped earlier.
McDonnell authorized the state forensic lab to begin performing familial searches in March 2011.
In May 2011, the department said it was capable of performing the searches, but that the relatively expensive technique would be used sparingly, perhaps a dozen times a year, in last-ditch efforts to solve cases.
Rockne Harmon, a former prosecutor in California and a proponent of familial DNA searching, said that if Virginia has had a success with familial searching it should share the news publicly to demonstrate to all that its protocol works.
"Once the suspect is charged, there is no legal or policy reason not to do so," he said.
Betty Layne DesPortes, a Richmond criminal-defense lawyer and DNA expert, said the prosecutor may not be disclosing the familial search results out of concern a defense attorney will try to make a legal issue of it.
Copyright 2013 - Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service