Crime: Philly Police learning some ABCs of DNA

Two months after the Kensington strangler confessed to killing three women, Philadelphia authorities will receive training on new technology that could help them track down future violent criminals.

Officials at the Philadelphia Forensic Science Bureau hope to soon begin using familial DNA, a tool that analyzes a suspect’s DNA to identify close relatives with criminal records. Renowned forensic scientist Bruce Budowle, of the University of North Texas, will be in town this week to provide training.

“He’s going to discuss with us familial searches and the genetics behind it, and then we’re hoping to train our staff,” said Joseph Szarka, lab manager at the bureau. “And in the meantime he’s going to utilize and apply it to one of our cases.”

The topic of familial DNA came up when police were searching for the Kensington strangler. Although officials had begun training in some aspects of new familial DNA technology before the case, Szarka said, they opted not to use it in that investigation. Suspect Antonio Rodriguez was later arrested from a tip.

The technology has helped authorities catch dangerous criminals before. Last year, police in California used familial DNA to apprehend “the grim sleeper,” accused of killing at least 10 people. Currently, California, Colorado and Virginia are the only states in the country to use it following the United Kingdom and other European countries.

Not only will Philadelphia get training from Budowle, but he will supply the lab with his university’s software — which can cost around $1 million.

“Whatever tool you have that can help we want to have it at our disposal,” Szarka said.

All in the family

Familial DNA is not helpful in every case and will not immediately identify a suspect, experts acknowledge. It can sometimes result in 40 to 50 possible matches, all of which police would have to investigate and verify. The benefits, however, far outweigh the disadvantages, they claim.

Philadelphia officials plan to use it only when they have exhausted all other options, Szarka said.

“You wouldn’t want to devote all these resources … for every case. You’d want to do it in cases where other things didn’t work,” he said.

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