Once again, the L.A. Times is writing about DNA . . . and once again, I’m getting angry.
Today’s article is about familial searching. The concept is as simple as it is ingenious: when authorities have a DNA sample from a violent crime scene, they can search databases for an exact match. But if they don’t get one, they might broaden their search for “profiles similar enough to belong to a parent or sibling.” If they get a hit, they can look at that person’s relatives as potential suspects.
The technique has solved murders and set innocent people free. But instead of focusing on the successes, the paper emphasizes handwringing over phantom privacy concerns. The deck headline says: “California’s familial searching policy, the most extensive in the nation, looks for genetic ties between culprits and kin. Privacy advocates and legal experts are nervous.” This theme is echoed high in the story, beginning with the seventh paragraph, which appears on the front page:
But the idea of scrutinizing families based exclusively on their possible genetic relationship to an unknown suspect makes privacy advocates and legal experts nervous. They argue that it effectively expands criminal databases to include every offender’s relatives, a potentially unconstitutional intrusion.
“There is kind of a queasiness about having the sins of your father come back to haunt you,” said Stanford University law professor Hank Greely, who supports familial searching despite those concerns. “It feels like we’re holding people responsible for the crimes of their family.”
Because the technology isn’t perfect, families with no connection to the perpetrator inevitably will be investigated, some scientists and legal experts say.
I have news for you, L.A. Times: as with any other human endeavor, criminal investigation in general isn’t perfect. People with no connection to the perpetrator will inevitably be investigated at times.
Does that mean we should stop investigating crime? Since when do we not investigate leads just because they could initially point investigators in the wrong direction?
Understand clearly what is going on here. We’re talking about searching people who are already in the database, to see if they might be a sibling of the person who did the murder.
If there is a close enough match, then — as with any other lead based on evidence — the lead may pan out or it may not.
Here’s an analogy. Let’s say that a young woman is kidnapped, held in a home, sexually abused, and eventually released. During her ordeal, she sneaks into a room and overhears the suspect saying to someone on the phone: “Take the money to my brother James. He just got out of prison and he’s living over on Cedar St.”
An investigator could search property records databases, to see if anyone named James lives on Cedar St. If he finds one or more such people, he could attempt to learn whether any of those Jameses has a brother. He could search criminal databases to see whether any such brothers were recently released from prison.
Or, he could just do nothing, out of deference to some insane phantom privacy concern on the part of innocent people with brothers on Cedar Street named James.
Searching the database for one’s relatives seems less intrusive than, say, knocking on doors in a neighborhood where a murder has occurred. Can you believe the incredible privacy violation involved when authorities with badges and guns come knocking on the door of your home — your sanctuary! your castle! — merely because you happen to live near the murder?!?!
Oh, the intrusion! Oh, the invasion of privacy! Privacy advocates are nervous! It feels like we’re holding people responsible for living near the scene of a crime!!!!
Yet homicide detectives routinely do door-knocks to look for witnesses, and no rational person objects. What’s the difference here?
The paper emphasizes the privacy concerns, placing them in a headline and on the front page. Mentioned as almost an afterthought are the successes, including a case that was solved, after which “[a] person who had spent 18 years behind bars for the crime was freed.”
Gee, being incarcerated for 18 years for a crime you didn’t commit seems like a rather major invasion of privacy, doesn’t it? Why, it almost seems as extreme as having authorities ask you a few questions, even though you’re innocent!
Yet that tidbit is not on the front page, or mentioned in any headline.
As ridiculous as the concerns of the privacy advocates assuredly are, my beef isn’t that the paper is reporting those concerns. It’s that the newspaper assigns such great weight to such piddling worries. Why not put in the deck headline that innocent people have been freed from prison using this technique? Why not make sure that appears on Page One?
I think I know why not.
Many journalists see their role as being a watchdog — a kind of check on government. That can be a laudable goal, if it’s kept in perspective. But when this philosophy causes journalists to approach every story about a governmental initiative with a skeptical attitude, the ensuing coverage can subtly influence the public’s attitude against policies whose good effects far outweigh the ill.
The idea that the newspaper gives such prominence to the phantom concerns of privacy zealots, while mentioning an 18-year prison sentence served by an innocent person as almost an afterthought, shows how skewed the newspaper’s perspective truly is.
I’m beginning to think Jason Felch and Maura Dolan simply don’t like using DNA to solve crimes. Maybe if it had been the newspaper’s idea, rather than the government’s, they would feel differently.