Forensic DNA-based familial search methods may mistakenly identify individuals in a database as siblings or parents of an unknown perpetrator, when in fact they are distant relatives, according to research published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Rori Rohlfs and colleagues from the University of California at Berkeley and New York University.
Familial searching is a new forensic technique to identify a perpetrator if a crime scene DNA sample has no matches in a DNA database. In such a situation, law enforcement can look for a partial match to a known person in the database — a “near miss” — in the hope that the closeness of the genetic profiles indicates that one of that person’s relatives is the perpetrator. Familial searches can reliably distinguish first-degree relatives from unrelated individuals, but may misidentify distant relatives as being immediate family, according to this new research. As a result, second cousins, half- siblings and other relatives may be identified as siblings. The results suggest a 3-18% chance that a first cousin of a known offender could be misidentified as a full-sibling using current techniques, and up to a 42% chance that a half-sibling could be misidentified as a full-sibling.
The authors conclude that there exist two unanticipated likely outcomes of familial search policies. The study explains these as, “Investigations may wrongly target the immediate families of known offenders, because officers mistakenly believe that their lead is a first-degree relative. Second, investigations may ultimately probe far more deeply than initially imagined, because once officers are convinced that the source cannot be found among first degree relatives, they will widen their net of investigation to include more distant relations. Both of these consequences exacerbate the numerous ethical problems presented by familial searching.”
Rohlfs RV, Murphy E, Song YS, Slatkin M (2013). PLOS ONE 8(8): e70495. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070495
Financial Disclosure: This work was supported in part by National Institutes of Health grant R01-GM40282, National Science Foundation award 1103767 and CAREER Grant DBI-0846015, a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, and the Filomen D’Agostino and Max E. Greenberg Research Fund. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interest Statement: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.