The state has quietly begun comparing DNA taken from homicide victims to DNA collected from the scenes of unsolved crimes in an attempt to link the deceased to those cases, but the launch of the new initiative has been plagued by problems.
A 2008 state law requires that the Illinois State Police crime lab conduct such genetic searches of all homicide victims -- typically more than 700 a year.
Research shows some victims of crimes are likely to have committed crimes themselves. The goal of the legislation was to unlock any secrets the corpses may hold, said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who drafted the bill.
"By searching the DNA from all these victims, we were certain we'd be able to solve other homicides and sexual assaults," Brady said.
But a Tribune review found that since the law took effect, the crime lab has uploaded DNA from only 59 homicide victims into its criminal databases. None of those samples has been linked to unsolved crimes.
Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Lynne Jones, whose office has conducted autopsies on nearly 550 homicide victims this year, has not submitted any DNA samples to the crime lab as required by law. Jones provides the samples to police departments and was under the erroneous impression that it was their responsibility to submit the samples to the lab, said Chris Geovanis, a Cook County spokeswoman.
Brady and other critics said the law was clearly not being appropriately implemented.
"We're defeating the purpose of the law," said Brady, who criticized the medical examiner for failing to submit the required DNA samples. "We're missing opportunities to solve crimes."
If a sex offender is killed, for example, and his DNA is uploaded into the crime lab's database, it might hit to unsolved sexual assaults.
"That would allow us to bring closure to those victims of sexual assault," said Thomas Byrne, chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department .
It's the latest controversy surrounding the handling of DNA evidence in Illinois. The Tribune has found that:
--Certain police departments are not submitting DNA gathered from sexual assault cases to the crime lab for testing.
--The crime lab suffers from an ongoing backlog of untested DNA evidence, underreported for years.
--As many as 50,000 felons have not submitted DNA samples as required by a 2003 law.
Some ethicists suggest the tepid implementation of the 2008 law isn't such a bad thing. They oppose genetic searches of this kind and question the Big Brother nature of the state's expanding DNA databases.
It's impossible to prosecute a corpse, critics of the process point out, and if homicide victims are implicated in crimes, they have no way to defend themselves. Also, families of the victims subject to genetic searches are not being notified.
"This walks a fine line between genetic privacy and public safety," Frederick Bieber, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School who serves on national DNA advisory boards, said of the DNA initiative. "And without a clear, transparent protocol, you're in danger of ending up with misguided, misleading and inefficient searches."
Bieber called the genetic searches "intrusive" and worried about the consequences when DNA samples from homicide victims start linking to unsolved cases. The victim's DNA could have landed on a person or place without being part of a crime, Bieber said. If the victim is not alive to explain, the police could be led astray and the victim's family could be unfairly shamed or worse. "When you do searches with the DNA from dead people without consent, you're opening up a whole can of worms," Bieber said.
Other critics worry about the initiative's lack of transparency.
"The law says that the DNA from all homicide victims is to be searched, but that's not happening," said Susan Howley, a director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. "It raises questions about racial or other types of profiling."
Coroners in Will and DuPage counties said they have submitted DNA samples from all homicide victims in their jurisdictions, unbeknownst to the victims' families, but had no idea what happened once the DNA was in the lab's possession.
"The families aren't told," said Will County Coroner Patrick O'Neil. "We're just doing what the law says."
Illinois State Police said confidentiality requirements prevented the agency from identifying the 59 victims whose DNA had been subject to search -- whether they include those gunned down in gang violence or, for instance, someone killed in a drunken-driving crash.
The crime lab may have other DNA samples from homicide victims in its possession waiting to be processed, but it does not keep track, said Jan Johnson, a director for the lab.
Louisiana is the only other state to conduct such genetic searches of crime victims. Since that law took effect in 2003, that state's crime lab has uploaded into its criminal databases the DNA samples of hundreds of victims, said Capt. Layne Barnum, the lab's director.
Forensic officials there said multiple links had been made to unsolved crimes but could not point to specific cases.
Brady said he would work to remove any barriers preventing genetic searches of all homicide victims. The next step, he said: investigating the DNA of everyone who dies in the state. "The idea was we'd eventually do this with victims of all types of death," Brady said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun