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Police should not be allowed to badger relatives of criminals to build a DNA profile

July 12, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
If you happen to be related to a criminal, should the police put you under surveillance too, even if you have done nothing wrong? Should they be able to take a paper cup you threw away, probably without thinking much about it, just to get your DNA and use it to build a DNA profile of the black sheep of the family?

How about if your nefarious relative has been dead for 40 years and the murder case the police is trying to solve is 50 years old? That's what happened in the case of the Boston Strangler, according to the New York Times.

The Times reported this week that there has been a break in the case of the murder of Mary Sullivan, 19, who was found raped and murdered in her Boston apartment in January 1964. Police had long suspected Albert DeSalvo of being the Strangler, who is blamed for the murders of 11 women between 1962 and 1964, but weren't sure he was their man, despite a confession. DeSalvo was tried in 1967 for the so-called "Green Man" rapes and confessed to the Boston Strangler murders during the course of that investigation. He was later sentenced to life in prison for rape but, as a result of a plea bargain, wasn't charged with the Boston Strangler murders. Investigators were never entirely sure if he was guilty or if more than one man was to blame for the Boston Strangler murders. DeSalvo was found stabbed to death in prison in 1973.

The Times reports this week that police put DeSalvo's nephew under surveillance and used DNA from the nephew's discarded water bottle to build a profile that is a close match to DNA found at the scene of Mary Sullivan's murder. Now they plan to exhume Albert DeSalvo and try to learn more. This is all very interesting, but I find the police investigation a bit troubling. DeSalvo's nephew is NOT a criminal. He's an ordinary citizen whose privacy has been invaded by law enforcement. It might have been different had the investigators approached the family and asked them to voluntarily provide DNA samples in order to help solve the 50-year-old mystery, but it sounds like either the family was not willing or the police didn't bother to ask. The police also could have gone right to the source and simply had Albert DeSalvo exhumed without badgering his family.

Not surprisingly, according to the Times, DeSalvo's nephew and his family have hired a lawyer and were not at all happy about being put under surveillance to obtain a DNA sample. They probably do not have a case against the police department, since the DNA was obtained from a water bottle the nephew had discarded in public and there was no presumption of privacy. That may be the current law but I think the law could use some tinkering to protect a relative's right to keep his DNA profile private in instances like this. The law should not visit the sins of the father on the son or, in this case, the sins of the uncle onto the nephew.


Article Comments



Jul-15-13 10:35 AM

I'd say putting someone who isn't guilty of or suspected of a crime under surveillance might qualify as badgering.


Jul-15-13 9:27 AM

I had read an article that stated that a family member, his brother I believe, offered a DNA sample years ago and the police declined. That sample would have been a closer match to the suspect. I've also read books by John Douglas, former top FBI profiler, that say the rapes DeSalvo was convicted of and the Boston Strangler cases are very different with MO and signature that the killer is not DeSalvo.


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