Case sheds light on gray area

Like father like son? Or perhaps vice versa in the case of the suspected Los Angeles serial killer dubbed the "Grim Sleeper."

The recent arrest deserves the nation's rapt attention. But not only for the reasons most are listening: the shocking details of 10, possibly 11, people murdered and the relief an arrest brings for the victims' loved ones.

No, the national focus ought to linger because of the legal door that flew open when the cases were cracked. Detectives nabbed the father thanks to the crime of the son.

For nearly three decades LAPD were stumped by the murders of mostly poor black women, many sexually assaulted, some strangled and shot. When even a special task force couldn't solve the case, police used DNA taken from the crime scenes and cross-referenced it with DNA of convicted criminals. In June, they hit with a close match, a man who had been convicted of a felony weapons charge.

Close relatives of that man were scrutinized with the serial case in mind. The convicted man's father came under suspicion. DNA was lifted from a slice of pizza from the father. When that was found to match evidence from the murders, Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., 57, was arrested and charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Franklin lived in the South Los Angeles neighborhood where most of the murders happened, a fact that comes as no surprise to detectives on the case.

Familial DNA analysis is a relatively new form of police work. And lest exuberance over an arrest in this cold case overtake common sense, let's remember why this kind of sleuthing is and should remain controversial. It raises a fundamental question about privacy. DNA databases exist to link known criminals to other unsolved crimes they have committed, and that's something we all can live with. But could the databases and DNA analysis technology be used to put the innocent under suspicion not because of anything they have done but by shared bloodline? Will the fervor to solve crimes, especially horrific serial murders, lead to abuses?

There isn't a black or Latino community in America that hasn't voiced the complaint that police sometimes harass young men not because of what they have done, but who they are related to.

Whatever the benefits of familial DNA analysis, it can't be allowed trump people's fundamental rights. California wisely has decided only to use such DNA searches in cases where there is a great risk to the public and other investigative leads have come up empty.

Given racially disparate conviction rates, law enforcement has a plethora of DNA samples from blacks and Hispanics, and proportionally fewer from those of other races. So without restraints, the potential exists for police to get busy ferreting out some criminals by their blood kin, while others get less scrutiny.

For years, black community activists complained that the Grim Sleeper cases hadn't received sufficient media or public attention because of the lower social status of the victims.

The irony is how the case may conclude could become a way to launch unwanted and unwarranted police attention on that same community.

Contact Sanchez, an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, at msanchez@kcstar.com.