Jennifer K. Wagner, J.D., Ph.D., is a solo-practicing attorney in State College, PA and a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Integration of Genetic Healthcare Technologies.
Last month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly voted in favor of a bill that would expand the Commonwealth’s criminal database. PA Senate Bill 775 authorizes law enforcement to begin DNA fingerprinting of individuals upon arrest or charge for certain specified crimes (as opposed to only upon conviction) and authorizes familial searching of the state’s forensic database. After third consideration, the amended version of PA Senate Bill 775 passed by a vote of 42-6. The bill has been referred to the judiciary.
The bill had been introduced in March of 2011 by Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggio, who was later joined by a dozen colleagues (including nine Republican and three Democratic sponsors). It immediately garnered the attention of genetics law scholars, including Penn State Dickinson’s School of Law Professor David Kaye, who submitted a thorough statement (pdf) for the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s consideration.
The big news from the past 24 hours is the death of Osama Bin Laden, which was reported late Sunday evening by President Barack Obama. That’s front page news the world over. But Genomics Law Report readers might be interested to note that DNA appears to have played a significant role in confirming that it was, in fact, Bin Laden who was killed in a shootout with U.S. military forces yesterday in Pakistan.
As reported by The Telegraph earlier today, Bin Laden’s identity was confirmed by government officials only after they matched DNA taken from the body in Pakistan with DNA extracted from a preserved tissue sample from Bin Laden’s sister, who died of brain cancer several years ago. The identification happened rapidly, but, according to Christie Wilcox in a guest post at Scientific American, that’s not all that surprising. Wilcox outlines, step by step, how such an ID could have easily occurred in under 5 hours.
We have covered the use of forensic DNA techniques numerous times here at the GLR, and regular readers know identification through partial or familial DNA matching is not without both social and scientific critics. However, lest there be any doubt, CNN reports that the Obama administration used several methods, including facial recognition and eyewitness corroboration, to positively identify Bin Laden.
Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had captured a man suspected of being the “Grim Sleeper”: a serial killer linked with at least 10 murders over 25 years.1 The case marks the first time in the United States that a DNA search technique known as familial searching has led to an arrest in a homicide case.
As we’ve previously discussed, a partial match between two DNA profiles may indicate that the donors of the corresponding samples may be related. In familial searching, a database is searched for the purpose of identifying partial, rather than exact, matches against the sample of unknown origin. Those partial matches are then used as investigatory leads.
Though familial searching has been used with some success in other countries, few states openly endorse its practice. Those states that permit the use of partial matches at all generally prohibit the intentional search for those matches, requiring instead that they be discovered inadvertently. California began using familial searching in 2008 in a first attempt to identify the Grim Sleeper. At the time, the failure to produce a suspect was seen as a strike against the technique: if familial searching could implicate privacy concerns and subject innocent individuals to excessive genetic surveillance, it certainly could not be justified without being able to point to positive results.2 Since then, one DNA profile of particular interest was added to California’s database: that belonging to the son of the man now identified as the Grim Sleeper.