'Grim Sleeper' arrest sparks DNA debate

  • Article by: JENNIFER STEINHAUER , N ew York Times
  • Updated: July 8, 2010 - 9:47 PM

The alleged Los Angeles serial killer was tracked by matching his son's DNA from the state database with evidence at crime scenes.

LOS ANGELES - The arrest in the case of the "Grim Sleeper" -- a serial killer who terrorized South Los Angeles for two decades -- has put one of the hottest controversies in U.S. law enforcement to its first major test.

Only two states, Colorado and California, have a codified policy permitting the use of familial search -- the use of DNA samples taken from convicted criminals to track down relatives who may have committed a crime. It is a practice that district attorneys and the police say is an essential tool in catching otherwise elusive criminals but that privacy experts criticize as a threat to civil liberties.

This week, law enforcement struck a significant blow for the practice when the Los Angeles Police Department used it to arrest a man who they say murdered at least 10 people over 25 years. It is the first time an active familial search has been used to solve a homicide case in the United States.

Suspect's son was key

Lonnie D. Franklin Jr., 57, was charged Thursday with 10 counts of murder and one of attempted murder after the state DNA lab discovered a DNA link between evidence from the old crime scenes and that of Franklin's son, Christopher, who was recently convicted of a felony weapons charge.

The information developed from the state's familial search program suggested that Christopher Franklin was a relative of the source of the DNA from the old crime scenes. The police confirmed the association of Lonnie Franklin through matching of DNA from a discarded pizza slice. The match provided the crucial link in a seemingly unsolvable crime that struck terror and hopelessness throughout one of the city's poorest areas for years.

Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police said Thursday that he expected to connect Lonnie Franklin, who is being held without bail, to other murders.

"This is truly a breakthrough," said Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office wrote the DNA policy.

The use of the practice demonstrates that law enforcement can "stop criminals in their tracks and lock up some of the most vicious and dangerous members of our society," Brown said. "That's why this technology is so important."

The arrest in the protracted, gory case could settle the internal debate among lawmakers and the law enforcement agencies across the country considering the use of familial search, evidence law experts said. California is awaiting a court ruling on whether its DNA database can be expanded to include arrestees.

While the practice is common in England, it has been limited largely to Colorado in the United States. But in 2008, the California Department of Justice began using familial searches -- in the face of significant protests -- to solve hard crimes. The state restricted the practice to major, violent crimes in which all other investigative techniques had proved fruitless.

Question of racial profiling

Those who oppose the technique argue that there are inherent privacy concerns, and that it serves, in essence, as a form of racial profiling because a higher proportion of inmates are members of minorities.

"I can imagine lots of African-American families would think it is not fair to put a disproportionate number of black families under permanent genetic surveillance," said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University who has written about this issue.

Further, Rosen said, if other jurisdictions were not as strict at California about the technique's application -- expanding it to nonviolent crimes, for instance -- the issue would be even more complex.

"The technique is not inherently good or evil," he said. "It all has to do with what crimes it is used for, who's in the database, how the database is regulated and what is done with the samples."

The Grim Sleeper began his killing of women -- and one man -- in South Los Angeles in 1985, shooting his victims -- some of whom were prostitutes -- and leaving them in alleyways and dumpsters. The killer stopped in 1988, then started again in 2002 -- hence the Grim Sleeper nickname.

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