Virginia is introducing a new technique to broaden its use of DNA evidence to solve major violent crimes, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced Monday.
New computer software will allow the state to search its database of DNA information collected from those arrested of certain crimes and look not just for direct matches to DNA collected at new crime scenes but for near matches that suggest that a family member of the person in the database should be considered a suspect.
Such familial DNA searches are underway in California and Colorado, where the software was developed but is prohibited in many states due to privacy concerns.
Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert has also said he thought Aaron H. Thomas, who is accused of being the “East Coast Rapist,” could have been caught more quickly if Virginia used the practice. Investigators searched for 14 years for the man they believe raped or attempted to rape at least 17 women; Ebert has long been a supporter of the technique and has urged its adoption in Virginia.
Last year, police in California used the technique to identity Lonnie David Franklin Jr. as a a suspect in the so-called “Grim Sleeper” case. Franklin was fingered after police figured out that DNA evidence collected at a crime scene closely matched DNA on file from Franklin’s son.
The practice, widely opposed by civil libertarians, was also used by California police last week to charge a sex offender with sexually assaulting a woman in 2008.
“It is vital that our law enforcement agencies have every available tool at their disposal to protect public safety and investigate the most violent crimes in the Commonwealth,” said McDonnell said in a statement. “This new technology will allow forensic experts to develop leads otherwise unavailable to law enforcement officers that can expedite the identification of criminals in certain cases and can get these offenders off the streets before any further loss of life or injuries to citizens occur.”
McDonnell said the controversial technique would be used only in unsolved violent cases where other investigative leads have been exhausted.