Shaking the Family Tree to Solve Crimes

It’s a scientifically proven type of crime fighting that is banned in all but a handful of states. The question is why aren’t more crime labs using it?

It’s called familial DNA testing and it has been widely restricted because it is seen, by some, as an invasion of the privacy of innocent people.

Others remain convinced that since this type of DNA test solves crimes, even bringing notorious serial killers to justice, it is justified. You decide.

Routine DNA testing takes crime scene samples of blood, saliva, semen, skin cells and other bodily remnants and runs them through a national FBI data base called CODIS to see if the unknown perpetrator’s DNA is already in the system. If no match is found the next step could be a familial DNA test. Here’s how it works.

The CODIS system is the largest DNA registry in the world containing profiles on more than 14 million individuals.  So, say a man was arrested in the late 90’s for assault with a deadly weapon and was required to give a DNA sample. His DNA profile would automatically have been added to the CODIS registry, stored there forever. If police were to recover DNA years later from, say, a murder scene, a familial DNA test could reveal whether the murder suspect came from the same family tree as the assailant. If the test were to find a familial match, police could then put a surname to the DNA material. Familial testing can even expose the familial relationship, be it a father-child or brother-brother match. Here’s a real-life case.

When a dogged detective in Wichita, Kansas finally zeroed in on Dennis Rader as the infamous BTK (Bind Torture and Kill) serial killer he wanted to make absolutely certain that he had the man who had murdered 10 people over a 30 year span. Rader had a history of taunting police with cryptic letters and, finally, with a floppy disc full of information about his murder spree. Lt. Ken Landwehr found data on the disc that led to a local church and an author named Dennis. He discovered the church council president was Dennis Rader. Landwehr then got a warrant to obtain genetic material from Radar’s daughter. After using a familial DNA analysis on her 5-year old pap smear test technicians concluded that the daughter’s DNA profile was a familial match  to the DNA left at a BTK murder scene. This gave Landwehr the evidence he needed to take the serial killer of off the streets. Rader pleaded guilty sparing the community a long, painful and expensive trial.

Familial DNA testing also brought a California serial killer to justice. For more than 20 years detectives had been looking for a perp nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper” named for the long spans of time in between his murders. When a young man named Christopher Franklin was arrested on a weapons charge in 2009 his DNA was routinely registered with CODIS. Later, during periodic re-checks of the Grim Sleeper’s DNA, a familial match popped up indicating Christopher was closely related. The conclusion was that Christopher was either the father of or the son of the serial killer. Officers followed Christopher’s  father to a pizza place and upon testing his leftovers got a familial match to the DNA from their crime scenes. Result: Lonnie David Franklin, 57, was convicted of 10 murders and sentenced to death.

There are hundreds more major and cold case crimes that have been solved using familial DNA testing both here in the United States and in the UK where the technique was pioneered. Yet criticism about the invasion of privacy issue continues.

Surely the Grim Reaper’s son gave up his right to privacy when he broke the law and was required to give a DNA sample. But what about the daughter of the BTK serial killer? She never could have imagined that her routine gynecological test would be used to convict her father of multiple murders and then be available in CODIS in perpetuity.

Advancements in forensic science force us to consider weighty issues. Should someone lose their right to privacy just because a family member becomes a criminal? Or does the public’s right to be safe in their community trump the rights of one person? The debate has kept most states from adopting laws allowing familial DNA testing, a procedure that has clearly been successful in taking dangerous citizens off the streets.

So far, only 10 states — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming – allow this type of DNA test.

Study after study over the years has concluded that criminal behavior runs in families, either for genetic or environmental reasons. One study concluded that only 8% of families account for 43% of all crime. Armed with that knowledge doesn’t it makes sense that as a last resort we shake the family tree?



  1. Diane Dimond on February 20, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    Noozhawk Reader James GD writes:

    No, because we’re also armed with knowledge of the constitution, which doesnt allow that. never mind the cases where people have fabricated dna evidence, compromising countless cases based on bogus test results.

    • Diane Dimond on February 20, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      Dear JamesGD:

      I’d be very interested to know about cases in which “people have fabricated DNA evidence.” Can you give me some examples? That might be a good subject for a future column. ~ DD

  2. Diane Dimond on February 20, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Noozhawk Reader Monterey Jack writes:

    I seem to recall that we Californians approved a ballot measure to take DNA from people arrested for felonies. Just arrested, not yet convicted, and not necessarily even charged yet. The state courts had to strike down what we the peons wrought.

  3. Diane Dimond on February 20, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Facebook Friend Robert B. Reno writes:

    Dammit Diane! You’re supposed to give us easy black and white scenarios to think about. Now I’m going to stay awake in bed mulling this over. Good thing I’m not on duty tonight because I don’t think I’m going to get much sleep now….

  4. on February 20, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Study after study over the years has concluded that criminal behavior runs in families, either for genetic or environmental reasons. One study concluded that only 8 percent of families account for 43 percent of all crime. Armed with that knowledge, doesn t it make sense to shake the family tree as a last resort?

  5. Diane Dimond on February 20, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    Facebook Friend Pat Kelley Wittorf writes:

    Personally, I fail to see a “down” side. Granted, forcing a person to give a blood sample would certainly be “invasive” but a cheek swab? I would have no qualms at all. I have nothing to hide and if a member of my family broke the law I would want them stopped… hopefully very early in their “crime spree”.

    Perhaps the answer is that we don’t REQUIRE everyone to submit a DNA sample, we simply withhold something from those who don’t. We required children to be immunized before attending Public Schools, don’t we?

  6. Diane Dimond on February 20, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    Twitter Pal vickie vertel@vvertel writes:

    @DiDimond So amazingly interesting technology. It is necessary for all states to utilize. Thanks Diane! Great article.

  7. paul fischer on February 20, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    Long time since you and I briefly worked together. You were and are an excellent reporter.

    I see your point. But there are concurrent risks, correct?

    Just think what Adolf Hitler could have done with that test, to see if one’s grandparents were Jewish, Gypsies, or had any of several dread inherited diseases.

    Hitler’s cutoff-line for determining if someone needed to be rounded up and shunted off into the cattle cars and transported to Buchenwald or Dachau— was whether either of their grandparents qualified as any of a list of certain undesirables in the eyes of the Nazis.

    Every phone call in the U.S. is now recorded and analyzed since the early part of the Obama administration; now comes sifting through genetic markers of people who only went to the hospital to have blood work or women’s health exams….etc.

    I see your point and agree, except…

    • Diane Dimond on February 26, 2017 at 5:55 pm

      I see your point(s) too, Paul. Except in this day and age the few murderous dictators in the world don’t have the foresight to have established high quality DNA labs, let alone advanced DNA techniques like familial testing. Yes, they MIGHT establish them in the future – but I believe the trade-off between that far-flung possibility and the proven scientific value of taking murderers (especially serial murderers) off the street is a no brainer. I’ll take the YES – as opposed to the MAYBE-SOMEDAY-IN-THE-FUTURE any day. Thanks for writing! ~ DD

  8. Diane Dimond on February 24, 2017 at 2:40 am

    Noozhawk Reader Nancy Robel (ret. Santa Barb Sheriff’s office) writes:

    DNA should be just part of the puzzle for solving a crime. Circumstantial, other physical evidence, witness testimony, etc. should be brought to the courtroom to paint a complete picture of the committed crime by the alleged suspect. We had an interesting murder case that ran into a roadblock until familial DNA results put it back on track and eventually it was solved. We need a whole arsenal of tools to bring justice to the victims and the advancements in the field of DNA should be used diligently and responsibly.

  9. Diane Dimond on February 27, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    Twitter Pal CindyReynoldsCynthia Reynolds@CindyReynolds writes:

    @DiDimond I agree with you, but on a related issue, clearing the untested rape kits is more important.

  10. Diane Dimond on February 27, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Twitter Pal ChrisahullChris Hull@Chrisahull writes:

    @DiDimond Justice William O. Douglas: “The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.”

  11. Diane Dimond on February 27, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    Twitter Pal ShirleyWhel07S D Wheeler@ShirleyWhel07 writes:

    @DiDimond I didn’t know only 10 states allow it!

  12. Diane Dimond on February 27, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Reader Mark Curtis writes:

    Ms Dimond:

    Really. It has been legal for anyone to manufacture their own firearms for the last 200 + years.
    The 80% receivers make this less difficult but by no means easy. Recent excitement over the arrival of AR platform receivers is a publicity game by those who, in their ignorance, imagine a world where only governments have the power to threaten ones’ life.
    Anyway, receiver kits are hardly new. Fully automatic (sub- machine gun) Sten gun receiver tubes with a template glued on have been available almost since the end of WWII. Israelis made Stens, pretty much from scratch, underground and under the British noses in the 1940s. 1911 style Colt .45 80% frames have been available for 20-30 years without causing such a furor. There are many ways to screw-up an 80% receiver; drilling pin holes slightly off center or not perpendicular to the frame are easiest. The newer frame kits come with jigs (drilling guides) that help reduce off center pin and screw holes and provide help in milling locations but these too can be defeated by carelessness and sloppy workmanship.
    Regarding 3D printers: Yes, you can produce a receiver for some 5 to 500 times the cost of buying one if you choose the right printer and the right alloy to make your receiver. I have just spent most of a day looking at printers and have decided that I’ll need substantial training in maker-talk to understand the acronyms, jargon and vocabulary used to describe the machines, their capabilities and the materials they can work with. Why would I, as a self respecting gang-banger, subject myself to all that work, all that studying and intellectual stress when I can steal a nice big garbage truck, drive it into the side of any gun shop in town and steal all the ARs or AKs I want, thus avoiding the inconvenience of having my name attached to the serial numbers of firearms I’m not allowed to purchase anyway? It is just much simpler to steal the things than make them.
    I really have to question the assertion that California has reliably attributed any
    kit gun to a homicide. Rifles are used in a vanishingly small percentage of murders, despite the mass shootings, and are not usually recovered to identify their manufacturer. Where did this
    come from? As for mister Wilson and his “Ghost Gunner” : we’re back to the economics of
    manufacture. 80% receivers are available for $40 to $50 complete receivers for from $70 to $120. In order for the $1500 milling machine kit to be cost effective, you will have to make and sell a minimum of 50 firearms. Incidentally, while citizens have always been able to make firearms for their own use, they cannot be sold or given away or distributed in any way without getting a manufacturers license from BATFE and marking each with a unique set of identifying symbols. ( I’m not sure that numerals are required; perhaps any of the hexadecimal symbols from your computer would suffice. best to ask first) I guess I just don’t understand what the big advantage to having a rifle without a serial number is, even if you are planning on confiscating every firearm you can trace to an owner, the large number of private sales guarantees that tens of millions of weapons have passed through several hands without much in the way of record keeping. This whole issue doesn’t seem in keeping with your usual skepticism of the utility of new rules in the absence of the resources or will to enforce those we already have.

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