Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Long Shot Pays Off in Long Island

A family member shouted “we love you” as police took John Bittrolff back to jail. A court in Long Island had just ordered him held without bail on charges of murdering two women over 20 years ago. “Some arrests take a few hours, some days; some take 20 years,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber told reporters.

If police have the killer, it is a success for “familial searching” — the practice of trawling a database for near misses that are especially likely to arise when the source of traces of DNA recovered from crime scenes or victims are very close relatives of one of the “inhabitants” of the database — convicted offenders or, increasingly, arrestees.

Mr. Bittrolff’s DNA profile was not in the New York database. (He had been arrested, but not convicted, for assault in 1993.) However, last year, his brother, Timothy, had been required to give a sample of DNA after a conviction for violating protective orders. DNA from semen found inside the bodies of both women pointed to a brother of Timothy as the source of that semen. But the two victims were said to have been prostitutes, and Mr. Bittrolff’s counsel have been quick to note that "having sex does not mean killing."

In addition to increasing the modest number of possibly successful “outer directed” database trawls, the case is interesting for some procedural twists involving the acquisition of DNA samples. As in the California “grim sleeper” case, police did not initially seek a court order for a sample of their suspect’s DNA to verify that he was indeed associated with the victim’s bodies. Instead, detectives helped themselves to paper bags of garbage left in front of John Bittrolff's house. Among the plastic cups, drink bottles, toothpicks, straws, crawfish heads, cotton swabs, and bandages, they found DNA from his sons, his brother, and his wife (who they trailed until they collected a cigarette butt that she tossed from the window of her truck while driving to work). And, on one paper cup, they found a DNA profile that matched the semen.

But the police were not satisfied. They arrested wiped DNA from a cup of water John Bittrolff drank after his arrest. And even that was not enough. The assistant district attorney (ADA) then applied for a court order to force the twice-DNA-matched suspect to submit to DNA sampling.

Defense lawyers objected that a third sample from Mr. Bittrolff was manifestly unnecessary. The ADA’s response was that prosecutors are entitled to a "judicially approved" DNA sample to present to a grand jury. The court issued the order, and that is where the case stands as of now.

I cannot say that I understand the prosecutor’s reasoning. Unless New York grand jury procedure is very different from the norm, a prosecutor can introduce all manner of evidence without judicial approval. Grand jurors can even rely on unconstitutionally seized evidence without offending the Fourth Amendment.

Was the ADA looking ahead to the trial? Would he want to avoid having to explain the artifices — the “familial searching,” the personal surveillance of family members, and the garbage pull — that the police used to acquire the earlier samples? He might be able to excise all that from the case with a “judicially approved” sample. In any event, the People will present their evidence to the grand jury on Thursday.


The information on the case comes from the following media reports:
I have taken the liberty of using some words in these articles without quotation marks. For a detailed article on the nature and constitutionality of outer-directed DNA database trawling, see David H. Kaye, The Genealogy Detectives: A Constitutional Analysis of “Familial Searching”, 51 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 109 (2013)

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