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A Not So Perfect Match

How Near-DNA Matches Can Incriminate Relatives Of Criminals.

There’s a new saying in law enforcement circles these days: don’t do the crime if your brother’s doing time. And the reason for that is the power of DNA.

But Stephen Mercer disagrees. “Of course they’re gonna come up with analogies that seem to do away with any sense of wrongdoing or any sense of violation of privacy by the government. So, they say, ‘Oh, well this is like a partial plate, and we’re just following up on these leads….,” he says.

“And what’s wrong with that?” Stahl asks.

“Because it’s not a partial plate. We’re talking about DNA. DNA is different. DNA contains a vast amount of intensely personal information,” Mercer says.

And he says there are serious racial implications, because since blacks are overrepresented in the prisons, and therefore in the DNA database, extending it to relatives would magnify the disparity.

“What you’re gonna end up seeing is nearly the majority of the African American population being under genetic surveillance,” Mercer says. “If you do the math, that’s where you end up.”

“Extremely specific question. You have a crime lab looking at DNA in a horrific crime. They get a partial match, a very close match, and the DNA expert suspects a brother. Should he withhold that information from the police, or should he tell the police, ‘We think a brother did this?'” Stahl asks Mercer.

As 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, every state in this country collects DNA from convicted felons and loads it into computer databases, all linked together by the FBI. When detectives find DNA at a crime scene, they run it through that database looking for a perfect match. You see this on crime shows all the time.

But sometimes a search yields a not so perfect match but a partial match, in which case it’s clear that the felon in the database did not commit the crime. But the DNA is so similar, maybe their father, mother, or brother did.

This raises a dilemma: should police start investigating those family members, or is that going too far?

“These are important scientific leads that need to be run down. And the fact that we can’t run them down in this country I think is shameful,” says Mitch Morrissey, the district attorney of Denver, Colo.

Morrissey runs one of the most aggressive cold case projects in the country. On three separate occasions over the last few years, his team ran DNA from unsolved rapes through the DNA database and came up with partial hits.

In these three cases, Morrissey says there wasn’t a perfect match, but that the matches were very close.

Morrissey wanted the names of those felons, so he could investigate their family members, but he was told that FBI policy prohibits states from sharing names with one another unless it’s a perfect match.

“This isn’t car break-ins. These are the type of people that will attack women. And continually do it until you catch them. And I think that the FBI, my office, the Denver Police Department, owe it to victims, and potential victims to run down these leads,” Morrissey argues.

60 Minutes asked Angelo Della Manna, head of DNA analysis for the state of Alabama, for a crash course in how DNA profiles and matches work.

He showed Stahl the DNA profile of one individual. In a visual profile, one can see 13 pairs of peaks, or “alleles,” which are then represented as numbers. One number in each pair comes from the mother; one from the father.

“When you look at this, can you tell me what color eyes that person has, or how tall they are? Or anything like that?” Stahl asks.

“No, not at all,” Della Manna says. “The areas that we look at are commonly referred to as in the junk DNA.”

When Della Manna runs a sample from a crime scene through the DNA database and gets a perfect match, the numbers are identical in both profiles. But sometimes he gets a partial match, where all but a few numbers are the same.

“These partial matches kind of hit you between the eyes and you say, ‘Well, it’s obviously not this person.’ But when you look at the profile as a whole, there’s a lot of sharing there,” he explains. “Statistically, there’s a strong likelihood that you’re looking at the biological relative of the rapist or the source of this crime scene sample.”

Criminologists have long known that crime tends to run in families: one study found that 51 percent of inmates in state prisons had a family member who had also been incarcerated. In fact, a statistical analysis last year in the journal “Science” found that if we used our DNA database to deliberately look for family members, it could yield 40 percent more hits.

“Now you’re subjecting a whole new class of innocent people to genetic surveillance by the government,” argues Stephen Mercer, a Maryland attorney who specializes in issues involving DNA.

“With this new technology, no one has ever considered, ‘Well, if my brother’s DNA ends up in the database, and he’s forfeited his privacy rights by becoming a convicted felon, has he also forfeited my privacy rights, as well, as a wholly innocent family member,'” Mercer says. “That puts me under lifelong genetic surveillance.”

Speaking with D.A. Morrissey, Stahl points out, “The other side of the argument is that this is genetic surveillance and that it invades innocent people’s privacy. And that this is America and we don’t do that.”

“Let me give you an example. Say we have a hit and run accident where someone was killed. And we have witnesses that say, ‘This is the color of the car. This is the style of the car. But I only got the first three license plate numbers’ … Only a partial. What should the police do? Just say, ‘Oh no, it’s only partial, so we’re not gonna do anything.’ Or should they go to your motor vehicle database and they may talk to 20 people that weren’t involved in the accident at all. And I’ll tell ya, most of those people are gonna tell ya, ‘Thanks for looking into this. Because we hope you solve the case,'” Morrissey says.

But Stephen Mercer disagrees. “Of course they’re gonna come up with analogies that seem to do away with any sense of wrongdoing or any sense of violation of privacy by the government. So, they say, ‘Oh, well this is like a partial plate, and we’re just following up on these leads….,” he says.

“And what’s wrong with that?” Stahl asks.

“Because it’s not a partial plate. We’re talking about DNA. DNA is different. DNA contains a vast amount of intensely personal information,” Mercer says.

And he says there are serious racial implications, because since blacks are overrepresented in the prisons, and therefore in the DNA database, extending it to relatives would magnify the disparity.

“What you’re gonna end up seeing is nearly the majority of the African American population being under genetic surveillance,” Mercer says. “If you do the math, that’s where you end up.”

“Extremely specific question. You have a crime lab looking at DNA in a horrific crime. They get a partial match, a very close match, and the DNA expert suspects a brother. Should he withhold that information from the police, or should he tell the police, ‘We think a brother did this?'” Stahl asks Mercer.

“If it comes from a database search?” Mercer asks.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Then it should not be revealed,” Mercer says.

“So, the DNA expert should just say, ‘Sorry. No match.’ And that’s the end of it? And not pass this incredible clue along?” Stahl asks.

“That’s correct,” Mercer argues.

Mitch Morrissey says he has a big problem with that. “They have this information. And they’re not telling the lead investigators? How do they justify that to the next victim of this serial rapist?” he asks.

Morrissey thinks the U.S. should do what the British are doing: they have developed a technique to scour their DNA database, deliberately searching for partial matches that might indicate a relative.

It’s called “familial searching,” and the city of Rotherham used it to try and catch a criminal who had eluded police for 20 years. Back in the 1980s he was called the “shoe rapist,” because of the pattern of his attacks.

“It was a lone female walking home. Invariably they were wearing stiletto shoes. They were tied up using stockings, and their shoes were always stolen,” explains Det. Sue Hickman.

Hickman was given a list of 43 people in the area who could have been related to the rapist. The third door she knocked on belonged to June Lloyd, whose DNA was in the database because of a DUI arrest.

What did she say to her?

“‘We’re running a cold case investigation and there are some similarities between your DNA and the offender’s DNA. Do you mind telling me, have you got any brothers?’ And, she said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘I’ve got a brother, but it wouldn’t be my brother. He’s a businessman,'” Hickman remembers.

Her brother James was a manager at a print shop. Married, with children, he had no criminal record. But when his sister called and told him about Hickman’s visit, he became suicidal, and his family called the police.

Underneath a trap door at his office, police discovered more than 100 women’s shoes, all worn, all different sizes, all stiletto heels. DNA testing confirmed James Lloyd was the “shoe rapist.”

Hickman had visited three people and solved the crime in eight hours.

Mitch Morrissey believes familial searching should become national policy. “There should be a familial searching policy that is constitutional and legal in the United States,” he tells Stahl.

Darryl Hunt in Winston-Salem, N.C., would agree, and not just for its potential to catch criminals, but for its power to set innocent people free.

Twenty-three years ago, Winston-Salem was shaken by a brutal killing: a young newspaper editor named Deborah Sykes was dragged to a grassy area, raped and stabbed 16 times. Although there was little to go on, Darryl Hunt was charged with first degree murder.

Investigators had no fingerprint and no blood, but they did have semen, which Hunt tells Stahl didn’t match him.

The semen didn’t match his blood type – and yet, Hunt was convicted and sentenced to life. Ten years later, when DNA testing came along, it showed he was not the rapist. But to Hunt’s astonishment, the judge said he still could have committed the murder, and sent him right back to prison.

He spent another nine years behind bars before the state ran the DNA from the crime scene through North Carolina’s database. That’s when things got interesting.

They got what seemed to be a hit to a convicted felon named Anthony Brown, but the sample was so old, it was degraded and the result inconclusive, so they flew the sample to Angelo Della Manna’s state-of-the-art lab in Alabama, which produced a clear profile that revealed that Anthony Brown was not the rapist.

But the profile was remarkably close and led Della Manna to wonder if Brown had a brother.

He told his counterparts in North Carolina that they might want to check and see if Anthony Brown had any brothers. FBI policy doesn’t prohibit a state from pursuing a partial match within its own borders. What he heard back the next day was not what he expected.

“He has 11 brothers,” Della Manna remembers. “Six of those brothers were deceased. However, there was one brother who was in a neighboring county on a misdemeanor parole violation.”

The investigators’ next move was right out of CSI. “They offered him a cigarette. He took that cigarette and then finished the interview. And they took that cigarette butt to the laboratory, ran that very quickly. And it matched at all 13. And then that generated the arrest warrant,” Della Manna explains.

The man who actually raped and murdered Deborah Sykes was Anthony Brown’s older brother, Willard. Confronted with the DNA evidence, he confessed. And Darryl Hunt, after 19 years, was finally set free.

But to some, even a wonderful end can’t justify the means.

“If the measure of reasonableness is going to be, ‘We got the right guy,’ then every search is gonna be reasonable,” says Stephen Mercer. “In the name of solving crimes, let’s just start going around and kicking down doors. And issuing general search warrant for high crime neighborhoods and randomly searching and seizing people. Cause you know what? We’re gonna solve a lot of crime. No doubt that will be a benefit. But, what’s the cost?”

“I know that there’s people that talk about privacy rights and this, but I think of two things: one is the victims,” says Darryl Hunt. “There’ll be more victims if this person is not caught. And the other is the person that could be falsely accused and sitting in prison.”

The city of Winston-Salem offered Hunt an apology and $1.65 million to compensate him for his years in prison. From his office overlooking the old county courthouse, he now works to help other former inmates re-enter society. And he’s thankful that North Carolina isn’t a state where a partial DNA match can’t be pursued.

“If it wasn’t for this then I wouldn’t be here,” he says.


After months of pushing, Denver D.A. Mitch Morrissey won a partial victory: the FBI has instituted an interim policy that leaves it up to the states to decide whether to share information with one another in the event of a partial match. He’s hoping that’ll help solve his three rape cases.
Produced By Shari Finkelstein

This segment was originally broadcast on April 1, 2007. It was updated on July 15, 2007.

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