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Va. doesn't need DNA search law: Panel

By the Associated Press

Virginia likely won't need a new law allowing a controversial form of DNA searches but lawmakers may want to create guidelines for when those searches can be conducted, members of a legislative panel said Monday.

The Forensic Science Board, which oversees the state Department of Forensic Science, had sought guidance from legislators over whether to proceed with familial DNA searches, which help identify criminal suspects using genetic material from their relatives.

Last month the board passed a measure asking lawmakers to consider implementing and funding the searches.

At a hearing Monday, several lawmakers on the Virginia State Crime Commission said the state's law regarding DNA searches already allows the new technique. The panel heard from proponents of the searches, including prosecutors and the father of a Virginia Tech student killed last year.

Commission chairwoman Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said legislators likely would approve the estimated $100,000 expense for software needed to perform the searches. She said lawmakers may want to help set up guidelines for when the searches could be performed, such as only in violent crimes where other investigative leads have been exhausted.

Department Director Pete Marone has cautioned against moving forward without guidance from the legislature. The searches can be costly, and many states have been slow to allow such searches amid privacy and other concerns.

Familial DNA searches are used in California and Colorado. Maryland and the District of Columbia strictly prohibit them.

"This is not a science issue. The science is very clear," Marone said. "The Department of Forensic Science can do the work. The question becomes should we do the work ... then at what level and how do we perform it?"

Marone said the department would continue looking at available software and examining what other states do until a final go-ahead is received from the legislature.

Where traditional DNA searches seek exact matches of biological evidence left at a crime scene and a profile of an offender already in a DNA database, familial DNA searches deliberately seek out near-matches that could be a parent, child or sibling of the suspect. Police use the search results as investigative leads and determine if the relative of the person in the database could have committed the crime. If there is reason to believe so, they get a DNA sample from that suspect to compare to the DNA from the crime.

The technique gained attention last summer after it was credited with identifying a suspect in the so-called "Grim Sleeper" killings in California. Lonnie Franklin Jr. was charged with 10 counts of murder and other charges in killings between 1985 and 2007.

Prosecutors in Virginia hope such searches could lead to the so-called "East Coast Rapist," whose DNA is linked to attacks on 19 women in Virginia and three other states since 1997, and also help resolve the slaying of Morgan Harrington, 20. Her remains were found in January, months after she disappeared in Charlottesville.

No arrests have been made in Harrington's death, but state police said forensic evidence links her case to a 2005 rape in Fairfax.

"Although nothing we could ever do could ever bring back our daughter, with luck and science we hope that the person who killed our daughter will be brought to justice," Dan Harrington told the commission.

The crime commission could revisit the issue in December when it recommends legislation to the General Assembly.

It also is likely to vote then on whether to recommend an overhaul of the state's statutes regarding protective orders and to ban a type of synthetic marijuana -- two other issues it heard about during Monday's meeting.

Legislators have proposed expanding protective orders to those in dating relationships and requiring those under protective orders to be monitored by GPS, among other changes.

Several lawmakers have filed bills to ban "Spice" or "K2," a synthetic blend of chemically treated, smokable leaves that produce a high but are legally bought in convenience stores or online. A dozen other states have banned synthetic marijuana.

By the Associated Press  | November 16, 2010; 7:41 AM ET
Categories:  Virginia  
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