Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A little spit could catch a killer

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The Pickton inquiry underway in Vancouver has made clear how powerful and vital the police use of DNA science was in bringing serial killer Robert "Willie" Pickton to justice.


Fascinating and gruesome, the DNA of 10 women was found on items in two of Pickton's freezers. Specks of DNA from two other women were mixed with some of his ground meat. Another victim's was on a saw in the pig farmer's slaughterhouse.

That's just a hint of horror that emerged from the property of a true homicidal maniac, charged initially with 27 slayings, and ultimately convicted of the second-degree murders of six women.

In Winnipeg, 13-year-old Candace Derksen's murder was solved decades after the fact when DNA was extracted from a piece of twine, leading to the conviction of Mark Edward Grant. The 1984 case of Wolseley resident Beverley Dyke went unsolved until DNA linked her murder to a full-time rounder, Robert Kociuk, now a senior citizen. He was convicted at trial and last month lost in the Provincial Court of Appeal.

Crime evolves and so does the road to solution. For more than a century it's been a well-accepted principle that those charged with a criminal offence are fingerprinted under the guidance of the Identification of Criminals Act. It leaves a certain mark of the individual charged and the information can be used to solve other crimes, helped along today with sophisticated computerized data bases.

But for some reason, we seem to be terrified of the newer science that put Pickton behind bars for the rest of his life.

It's been nearly 30 years since the British birth of DNA science. But instead of fully embracing it, we have backed off at the behest of libertarians and privacy gurus armed with Owellian-type fears.

In the late 1990s, when the first DNA bill was being drafted, the then-privacy commissioner, Bruce Phillips, told the parliamentary justice committee that collecting genetic material would be a blow to the "the values that are essential to life in a democratic society." He talked about the "the psychological consequences of being poked and prodded by the state" and then headed over the top with fear that the DNA seized by police would "inevitably attract researchers who (would) want to analyse the sample" as if there were some kind of Dr. Frankenstein lurking in the wings.

Civil libertarians took it a step further with a ridiculous assertion that businesses, like insurance companies, could somehow spirit the restricted information away from ultra-confidential police files and convert it to their own use.

The police, perhaps more than any other component in the justice system, know the value of DNA in preventing wrongful arrests, seeing justice done and preventing crime.

A decade ago the Canadian Police Association banded with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and unsuccessfully pushed to have DNA samples taken from criminals in ways parallel to the long-accepted practice of taking fingerprints.

They pointed to the 1984 case of Christine Jessop. Raped and murdered, the smiley nine-year-old died with a heart full of fear before her body was discarded in some bush 50 kilometres from her southern Ontario home. Guy Paul Morin was arrested, convicted and went to jail. Unquestioned DNA later proved him innocent.

Today, the real killer's DNA is floating around in the national data bank waiting for a match. And it's all but incomprehensible that someone who could commit such a heinous crime has not had some criminal contact with authorities and as such, his DNA could and should be available for automatic computer comparison.

But that's not the way it is. Only certain offences are eligible for DNA seizure and they are accompanied with some pretty restrictive guidelines. So now, almost 30 years into the Jessop investigation, the once highly publicized file has more than 27,000 suspects to separately consider. And who knows, her killer may still be alive and still doing what his sickness demands. Maybe he's had a lot of police contact but nothing that has allowed for the taking of his DNA.

DNA is the brand new car that legislation delivered without wheels. The flimsy, sky-is-falling fears of those far removed from any killing field paralyzed the technology that could otherwise rocket an investigation forward.

When serial killers are at play, apprehension translates to prevention and isn't that what all sides want?

While DNA legislation has improved in recent years the law must go further and follow the fingerprint-style lead: surrendered when criminally charged.

The endless debate and fear of DNA abuse comes down to a basic question: Who should we be most concerned with -- a fully trained police technician armed with a cotton swab looking for a little spit, or monsters like Willie Pickton and the unknown killer of Christine Jessop?


Robert Marshall is a retired Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2011 j11

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