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Family Ties

news DNA

UPDATE: On Thursday, July 18, jurors found Elvis Garcia guilty of seven felonies, including sodomy, sexual battery, burglary and kidnapping after deliberating for just two hours. The DNA evidence was key, jurors and attorneys said.

"Clearly that was the most important piece of evidence," defense attorney James Reilly said. The trial ended about two to three weeks earlier than originally anticipated, Judge Timothy Volkmann said. Reilly did not make opening statements nor did he put any witnesses on the stand, though he said he originally considered having Garcia testify. Garcia faces up to life in prison with the possibility of parole when he is sentenced Oct. 2.

Brutal rape trial hinges on familial DNA technology

A hairnet, a plastic bottle and a father’s vehicle theft conviction led to the arrest of a Santa Cruz man currently on trial for a heinous March 2008 rape.

The trial of Elvis Garcia, which began July 1 and is expected to last through the month, hinges largely on DNA evidence that prosecutors say was linked to him through his father. The younger Garcia’s arrest was just the second time in California that a case was solved using what’s called familial DNA. The technology wasn’t approved in the state until 2008, and remains prohibited in a handful of other states.

Still, it’s quickly gaining traction among prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, garnering attention most recently in a 50-year-old murder and sex assault in Massachusetts. On July 11, authorities in Boston announced that a familial DNA search had been used to link Albert DeSalvo to the last of the 1960s killings attributed to the so-called Boston Strangler.

In the local case, Garcia is accused of raping a then-23-year-old barista inside the Kind Grind coffeehouse in the Santa Cruz Harbor as she prepared for her morning shift. An intruder entered, sexually assaulted her at knifepoint and robbed the shop. He then barricaded the woman inside a large refrigerator before fleeing.

It was “every woman’s nightmare,” Santa Cruz County prosecutor Michael Gilman said during the trial’s opening remarks earlier this month. “The physical evidence in this case shows the defendant is the man who committed these crimes.”

In the wake of the rape, Santa Cruz police held community safety meetings, distributed a sketch of the suspect and established a reward fund. Swabs of DNA evidence collected during a sexual assault exam performed on the victim were sent to a state Department of Justice laboratory for testing, along with pieces of her underwear and other clothing.

But the DNA didn’t match any of the nearly two million DNA profiles in the state’s database. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that police have the right to collect DNA from people they arrest, not just those convicted of crimes. The court’s 5-4 ruling came after a challenge to a Maryland law allowing the collection from anyone arrested for a violent felony. The decision could have an impact on challenges to a similar, but broader law in California, which requires anyone arrested for a felony to submit to a mouth swab. That genetic evidence can be processed and put into a state data bank at any time. However, if charges are dropped or the person is acquitted, their DNA isn’t automatically expunged from the state database. A person has to actually apply to have it removed.

Finding themselves at a dead end in the harbor rape case, Santa Cruz police investigators requested that state officials perform a familial DNA search.

This method involves using DNA samples from convicted criminals to track down relatives who may be the perpetrators. It’s based on the scientific concept that close relatives—parents, siblings and children—will have more genetic data in common than unrelated individuals. Once an investigative lead is generated by such a search, it must ultimately be confirmed by a DNA comparison between the suspect and evidence from the crime scene, says Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Justice. California was one of the first states to permit such searches.

“If it can be shown there is an offender in the DNA database whose profile is a close but not exact match to the evidence (that is, the suspect’s) profile with a high likelihood of being related, detectives can then follow up on this investigative lead,” Gregory writes in an email to GT.

Proponents of using the process argue that it’s necessary to close many cases that otherwise would go unsolved, but opponents question the implications for privacy and personal rights.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) came out against familial DNA searching earlier this year.

“After vigorous discussion and debate, NACDL’s board opposed the use of familial DNA searching during criminal investigations because of the potential for abuse and disparate impact,” says President Steven D. Benjamin. “In a perfect world, such searches would not be conducted. But since they are a reality, NADCL also adopted proposed restrictions that, if adopted in federal and state legislation, will ensure that familial DNA searches are conducted in the fairest manner possible.”

Criminalists at the state Department of Justice lab in Richmond checked DNA taken from the Santa Cruz crime scene against state databases. In late 2010, they found a partial match with Lorenzo Garcia, who had previously been convicted of felony vehicle theft in Southern California.

Investigators ruled out Lorenzo Garcia as the suspect and began focusing their investigation on his son, Elvis Garcia, who lived just doors from the victim in the Seabright neighborhood. They collected a hairnet and a Gatorade bottle from his garbage can and tested it for DNA. When police got a match, they were able to obtain an arrest warrant. Garcia was arrested and cheek swabs were taken. When a match was made to the evidence collected from the scene, Garcia was charged with the crime’s commission.

He faces life in prison if he’s convicted of the charges against him, which include sodomy, penetration, kidnapping and robbery. 

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