Searching the Family DNA Tree to Solve Crime

by Diane Dimond on April 4, 2011

DNA Technology Has Graduated

What if I told you there was a powerful crime fighting tool that could help find, convict and put away violent criminals that most of our 50 states are NOT using? Your first question would likely be “Why not?!”

That’s what I’d like to know.

We all get how important the discovery of DNA has been in identifying rapists, murderers and other criminals over the years. But DNA technology has now graduated and for the most part states just haven’t kept up.

Colorado has been leading the way on a technology called Familial DNA Search. Crime scene scientists and police investigators who have used it swear by its usefulness. Colorado has offered up special computer software it developed along with its experts to train others to use the new forensic technology – for free.

Where All DNA Samples Are Stored

Here’s how it works. When DNA is taken from a crime scene it is run through a computer program called CODIS (short for Combined DNA Index System) to see if there is a match. If the owner of the suspect DNA has ever given a sample to law enforcement it is in this data base. But what if the forensic scientist doesn’t find a match within CODIS? Are they dead in the DNA water? Not anymore.

With the new Colorado software scientists can search CODIS again. The second time they can look for DNA that has so many familial similarities to the unknown crime scene sample that scientists can determine they are blood relatives. The familial DNA might come from a parent, sibling, child or even a cousin or uncle. Armed with the DNA family connection, detectives staring at a cold case file suddenly find a whole new group of people to question.

Familial or "Kinship" DNA Helps Solve Crimes

Sounds like a fantastic new tool! Yet, Familial DNA Searches are only being routinely used in Colorado and California.

In Colorado, the method has helped identify 10 subjects wanted on a variety of charges.

In California, a serial killer suspect in Los Angeles was identified using this method. Police called him the “Grim Sleeper” because he seemed to go dormant in between murdering at least 10 women over more than 20 years. Saddled with an ice cold case California authorities decided to run DNA samples collected from saliva left on the bodies through a Familial DNA Search. Voila! They identified a young man named Christopher who was in the system for doing time on a felony weapons charge. Further investigation led police to 57 year old Lonnie David Franklin, Christopher’s father.

Franklin Caught Because Son's DNA was in the System

Once police had him as a suspect, an undercover detective posing as a waiter collected the elder Franklin’s plate, utensils and leftover food from a restaurant and the suspect’s DNA found on a discarded pizza crust matched the DNA left long ago on the bodies of the dead women. The case suddenly came back to life. Franklin is now awaiting trial on multiple charges of murder.

The state of Illinois is thinking about using the method to help solve a cold case from 2008, the mysterious murders of five women working at a Lane Bryant clothing store.

Both Pennsylvania and Virginia have already taken up Colorado’s generous offer to share the familial DNA software. Officials in both states are studying the possible legal ramifications before plunging in to this brave new world. They understand there are cautions about using familial DNA. The state of Maryland, for example, has flat out rejected the idea because, as the chief of forensics for the Public Defender’s office declared – it would have placed half the state’s African-American families under possible scrutiny because of the sheer number of black men who’ve been arrested and who have given DNA samples to the CODIS system.

Morgan Harrington & Mom, Gil

This promising new technology couldn’t be approved fast enough for Dan and Gil Harrington, a Virginia couple who have been agonizing over who might have murdered their beautiful daughter, Morgan. She left a concert in October 2009 and disappeared. That is, until her badly decomposed body was found months later in a field nine miles south of Charlottesville. DNA found on Morgan’s body was ultimately linked to whoever committed a brutal rape in Fairfax, Virginia some 90 miles away and four years earlier. Who is that person who would rape and murder young women? The Harrington’s believe a Familial DNA Search might hold the clue and they don’t understand what’s taking so to use it. I don’t understand it either.

The American Civil Liberties Union commented after the “Grim Sleeper” suspect was arrested to warn that Familial DNA Search is not the “silver bullet” that prosecutors suggest. The ACLU worries that privacy and civil rights concerns have not been adequately addressed and they worry that blacks might be unfairly singled out.

All Murders Deserve to be Solved

The D.A. of Denver, Colorado said it best in a recent debate when he reminded that while African Americans account for 13 percent of the population they were the victims in nearly half of America’s homicides in 2005.

Don’t they deserve the best forensic investigations have to offer too? And let’s not forget DNA evidence exonerates innocent people too.

I vote for every state to adopt Familial DNA Search techniques ASAP!


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie April 4, 2011 at 10:39 am

I agree with you 100% regarding familial DNA searches!

I just read an article that Virginia did approve the use of the searches…


Diane April 5, 2011 at 10:31 am

Stephanie – Virginia officials seem to like the idea but my research showed that testing for familial DNA hasn’t actually gone into effect yet as they hash out legal concerns. Let me read your link…maybe that’s changed now. Thanks! DD


Diane April 5, 2011 at 10:42 am

After checking Stephanie’s link I found this lead:

“The Virginia Department of Forensic Science can now perform familial DNA searching, a technique that prosecutors and victim family members have sought to help solve some of the state’s most difficult cases…. It’s a technique that has been sought in high-profile cases, including the search for the killer of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington.”

But I still don’t see that Virginia is actually using it yet. The Commonwealth downloaded the Colorado software in DECEMBER and has been making sure all legalities are covered ever since. For the Harrington family’s sake I hope the first case they use the new system for is Morgan’s. ~ DD


Bluewaters April 5, 2011 at 9:42 am


They will. I think they want to be careful in getting it right the first time or destroying what might be a too small of a sample to try again later. Lawyers will rip this until it is perfect and shown to work. If DNA is a tool to exonerate as has been the case, as much focus should be put on to apprehend or convict. Thinking Jon Benet and the serial killer out in NY that come to mind as examples. A whole family as a sample opens everything if something is on file. Going from a needle in a haystack to a pitchfork is progress. “Gem Science” is clearly getting ahead of the criminal(s) and making more homework for the defense attorney.

Every child born should be printed including a gentle swab just before feeding. Eventually then no problems with comparisons.


Diane April 5, 2011 at 10:43 am

Facebook Friend Ken Lewis wrote:

“Ken Lewis Very good article…Diane. Ohio’s been using CODIS for years. Matter of fact my investigative unit has caught many criminals using CODIS. It’s a great tool…Do to budgit cuts in most labs across America restrictions have been put in place that limits our searches. We would only search for family DNA on certain cases. Murder being one of them.”


Diane April 5, 2011 at 10:44 am

Facebook Friend Maureen Reintjes writes:

“Great article Diane!”


Diane April 5, 2011 at 10:45 am

Facebook Friend Nancy Kiley Erickson writes:

“If a person never committed a crime there is no DNA.”


Diane April 5, 2011 at 10:47 am

Nancy :

You mean no DNA in the law enforcement system? That’s right. DNA could be gathered from a crime scene….match with NOTHING in the system. And if they try to match that DNA sample for family matches – they could STILL come up with nothing.
Familial DNA is just another tool for law enforcement – not a silver bullet.


Lee H. September 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I don’t believe it is true that they would come up with nothing. Based on the LR (liklihood ratios) that are produced from doing the search using the new software (Denver’s for example) a list would be returned showing the top 20 candidates in the CODIS database which MIGHT be related. It would then be up to a DNA analyst to determine if any of the top 20 on the list would be worth pursing for investigation. Though sometimes these leads may be a waste of time, it is usually a COLD case this would be performed on, so there is not much to lose. Besides of course, invesitgators’ time, and agency and state money.

It is easy to see why the controversy exsists, yet hard to fight it with reasons NOT to use the technology when families of victims are waiting.


Lee H. September 10, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Quite the spelling errors in that. Likelihood* and pursuing* my apologies.


Diane April 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

DD Web Site Reader Marcy MacDonald writes:

“Wrongdoers always hide!”


Dede Raver October 15, 2011 at 9:18 am

Diane, thank you for such a thoughtful and well researched article. One of California’s best prosecutors, Rockne Harmon, has fought hard law enforcement to use allow familial DNA. It is difficult to read these stories about families waiting 10 or twenty years to know who killed their loved one and worse, fully understand we wouldn’t let police use modern technology. My family waited over 18 years to catch my sister’s murderer who was lounging on death row in California. It was a cold DNA hit. I cannot comment further on my sister’s case but we did learn that there were three other families waiting for almost 30 years in California while we waited in NY. (same perpetrator killing young couples as a thrill) It’s reporters like you that make a difference for families of victims and for police who want to catch violent criminals.


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