The Chronicle-Telegram recently turned to Attorney Ian Friedman over an issue of increasing concern in our criminal justice system: the use of familial DNA evidence against the accused. According to Attorney Friedman, familial DNA could be a gateway to alarming privacy issues, especially when law enforcement is allowed to maintain ever-growing DNA databases. This is the case in Ohio, where DNA is extracted from everyone arrested for a felony offense and then stored in a database, regardless of their guilt or innocence.
“Each person looked at will have their name generated in police investigative reports subject to public records laws,” Friedman said. “People’s names will be shown as suspects in heinous matters. That’s out there for good, and the problem is, once someone is cleared, we don’t have a system of purging.”
The Case of Justin A. Christian
The concerns of using familial DNA are described by The Chronicle-Telegram in the case of Justin A. Christian, a man currently accused of numerous felony offenses including rape and aggravated burglary. In the hunt to identify and apprehend Christian, law enforcement found a DNA sample of Christian's DNA on a stepladder. That sample was not a match to any individual whose DNA was currently stored in Ohio's DNA databases.
However, the authorities were then able to cast a wider net with the DNA sample search and identify several of Christian's family members who had previously been processed in the Ohio criminal justice system. In doing so, they were then able to pinpoint who Christian was and arrest him.
Christian is still awaiting his day in court, but while most experts note that using familial DNA can be useful for law enforcement, many share the same concerns that Attorney Friedman does. "It’s difficult to raise these issues in the face of the most recent prospect that a serial abductor [Christian] has been taken off the streets," he told The Chronicle-Telegram. "A lot of people will say, ‘Who cares?’ because people don’t care about the criminal justice system unless they have been touched by it."
Attorney Friedman believes that relying on an expansive database will also deepen prejudices we already often see our justice system struggling with. "Any time you see unfairness, you’ll see race and economic hardship, and that’s what you’ll see with familial DNA testing," Attorney Friedman adds. "We know perfectly well that if police came to people’s houses to swab for DNA, people would be up in arms. That’s how they need to think about this. Not just, ‘Oh, it’s those people.'"
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