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DNA questions, answers about the 'East Coast Rapist'

Readers of today's story and interactive about the so-called 'East Coast Rapist' have submitted a number of questions about the DNA methods used in the investigation.

Below, we've highlighted some pertinent questions and answers from a live online chat Fairfax County Detectives John Kelly and Paul O'Neill and Prince William County Detective Stephen Piaskowski -- as well as Washington Post staff writers Josh White and Maria Glod -- conducted Tuesday about the case.

Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Scary story. Are DNA samples typically taken from everyone who gets arrested -- like fingerprints? Curious that this person hasn't been arrested for any other crime?

Josh White: DNA is not taken from everyone who is arrested, and rules vary from state to state on whether DNA is collected at all. It is possible that this man has been arrested but has never submitted DNA, and it is also possible that he has submitted DNA somewhere but that it has not been tested yet. And as police told us, it is possible that the man knows he has never given up his DNA, which is why he appears to make little if any effort to prevent leaving it at the crime scenes. But once police catch him, they will know for sure they have the right guy because they will be able to compare his DNA to the samples they have.

Washington, D.C.: The article says there are an additional five rapes that are believed to have been committed by this one perpetrator. Where and when did these attacks occur and why are they included (and simultaneously excluded) from the list?

John Kelly: The unlisted cases lack DNA and or significant investigative information to conclude that they are linked. We are keeping the case files for investigative comparisons at this time.

Richmond, Va.: Thanks for the harrowing, detailed story -- although it definitely delayed my sleep last night. I lived in Charlottesville while a serial rapist was committing crimes and remember when the police took buccal swabs from young black men. It was very controversial and did not lead police to the rapist, but has anything like this been considered in the East Coast Rapist case?

Maria Glod: I remember that case well and covered it. Police, trying to catch a serial rapist and coming up with few leads, asked many black men to give DNA samples. Many people in the community were upset and saw it as a violation of privacy and civil rights. Ultimately, a tipster helped authorities catch the man.

I'd love to hear from detectives, but I think random DNA testing, in addition to civil rights and privacy concerns, would be unlikely to help. All police have is a very generic description and this man could live anywhere. Who would they test?

Washington, D.C.: In two of the New England cases there was no DNA link but police found the perpetrator's feces. Human feces can be used for DNA testing, in fact there's certainly much more human DNA in fecal material than on the knife handle DNA that is used to link the rapist to one attack. Did the authorities keep the feces they found for later testing?

Josh White: Police in Connecticut, where feces was left at two of the crimes scenes, told us that for DNA to be collected from a sample, the sample must be frozen immediately, and even then it might not yield anything useful. In Rhode Island, there was feces found on the back porch near where the man's DNA was found, but police and the homeowner dismissed it as probably being from the family's dog. In that case, though, they already had his DNA, and it's more of a potential link to the man's behavior. In short, there are no DNA links from that evidence that we know of in this case.

Washington, D.C.: This case reminds me of a serial rapist and murderer in California. I believe this guy is called the East Area Rapist. This man held a couple of parts of California in sheer terror for a number of years and then he just vanished. Though DNA was collected from the crime scenes, law enforcement never got a hit on the DNA.

Has law enforcement looked at rape cases in other areas of the U.S. to see if it is possible this rapist has extended his operation per se?

John Kelly: DNA databases are linked at the state and national level for investigative comparisons. If a match was made anywhere else in the country our agency would be notified by the forensic department and the investigative agency. Detectives:

Do you agree with Maria that random DNA testing would be unlikely to help find the perpetrator? If you were to perform DNA tests, how do you decide who to test?

John Kelly: The great distances this offender traveled would make random sampling impossible.

This item has been updated since it was first published.

By Washington Post Editors  |  March 16, 2010; 2:01 PM ET
Categories:  Around the Nation , Fairfax , Josh White , Maria Glod , Pr. William , Reader Questions  
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