Reopening a Cold Case
King’s DNA matched a sample stored in a state database in connection with a 2003 case in which a 53-year-old woman was raped. The match reopened what had been a cold case, and authorities additionally charged King with the rape and a related robbery, resulting in the life sentence he is now serving.
Through his lawyers, King contended that in collecting DNA before conviction, Maryland carried out an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Not so, countered the state of Maryland. A Wicomico County trial court found him guilty of first-degree rape.
King’s conviction was overturned 5–2 by Maryland’s Court of Appeals, which rejected the state’s argument that collecting DNA was no different than collecting fingerprints from suspects: “Although the Maryland DNA Collection Act restricts the DNA profile to identifying information only, we cannot turn a blind eye to the vast genetic treasure map that remains in the DNA sample retained by the State.”
That “treasure map” includes what scientists know about people through their DNA—and, of particular concern to two lawyers interviewed in recent days, all that remains to be discovered.
“Your fingerprints don’t tell your race, or who you might be related to, or other kinds of information,” Edward J. Naughton, a partner in the Boston office of law firm Brown Rudnick, told GEN. “Your genome contains everything that’s needed, and the government is holding a sample that has your entire DNA profile. And it’s that that really makes DNA different. You can’t reconstruct someone’s risk of developing certain diseases from someone’s fingerprints or their rap sheet.”
Kristina Bieker-Brady, Ph.D., managing partner with the science-focused IP law firm Clark & Elbing in Boston, calls the case a classic example of good facts making bad law: While Maryland authorities convicted King, they did so through a warrantless DNA collection.
“They used that information for the better good of society. But that information goes into a database that can be dipped into for any number of reasons, good or bad. So there’s a real sense among some of us that we need to be very careful about when and under what circumstances we obtain DNA, and how we safeguard that information once we have it,” said Dr. Bieker-Brady, a molecular biologist and geneticist by training.
“Down the road, in ways that we can’t even envision now, there will be information that can be obtained from those sequences that could be detrimental to the individual,” she added.
For example, partial DNA matches involving an arrested suspect can link that person’s family members to other crimes. California, Colorado, Texas, and Virginia are among states that carry out familial searches, according to the FBI.
Beyond families, some suspects are accused wrongly. As Naughton noted, genetic material from a 2004 murder in New York City appeared to match DNA from a chain keeping a subway gate open during an Occupy Wall Street protest last year, but the murder-scene sample was later found to be contaminated.
The patchwork of state laws and procedures complicates efforts to resolve issues raised by the case. In addition to FBI’s Combined DNA Index System or CODIS, DNA databases are maintained by most states, each with their own procedures for whom to sample, and the crimes for which suspects may undergo testing upon arrest.