As the RCMP in Prince George, B.C., continues its arduous quest to solve the cases of a missing person and three murdered women, a civil liberties group is protesting the force’s strategy.
The troublesome files go back to 2006 with at least one link to B.C.’s infamous Highway of Tears and its murder toll, now 18 strong.
The fuss comes with an investigative approach sometimes known as blooding, a genetic fingerprint dragnet where samples of DNA are collected from a large target group for comparison with crime data. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association calls the move a violation of human rights. So far, about 400 samples have been taken, 100 from cab drivers.
The sample (an oral swab or blood from a finger prick) is voluntary and taken with written consent of the provider.
The counter-argument is it’s not voluntary because an individual who declines to provide a sample gets placed in the crosshairs of suspicion.
The same argument was made in 2003 when 10-year-old Holly Jones stole the national spotlight.
She had vanished from her Toronto neighbourhood and as the investigation laboured, police moved to asking for DNA en masse.
A Globe and Mail headline read, DNA sweep in Toronto alarms many.
Toronto should have been alarmed. Because Holly didn’t just disappear, she was taken.
She was abused, murdered, her body parts put into bags and tossed into Lake Ontario.
And like the criticism now being levelled at the RCMP, the argument against the Toronto sweep was the implication of unfairly becoming suspect.
Michael Briere, 35, refused to provide the Toronto investigation a sample and he did become a suspect. Of course, there was more.
While canvassing for samples, sharp-eyed cops, Andrew Teixeira and Jamie Clark, noted a carpet in Briere’s house that was a possible match for fibres significant to the investigation. No word whether anybody thought those observations trampled key rights.
When Toronto detectives secured some discard-DNA from Briere it was the beginning of his end and an eventual truckload of evidence led to a guilty plea and life sentence.
The strategy has been used in other highprofile cases in Canada but perhaps the most famous is a British case that sent Colin Pitchfork, a baker, to prison. The Blooding, written by former L.A. cop and renowned author Joseph Wambaugh, recounts firstever killings solved by DNA.
The true story is set in the mid-1980s and is about two young girls, slain three years apart. With DNA tracing in its very infancy there was a mass collection of thousands of samples that led to Pitchfork being found guilty and sentenced to 30 years. As importantly, it exonerated a dim fellow who had provided a convincing admission to one of the killings.
In the case of little Holly Jones, think of the fear that must have been in her 10-year old heart, trapped in a neighbour’s house, knowing she would never be going home, that her life was over.
For some, though, that’s secondary and support of the BC Civil Liberties Association is strong. One of the scores of comments logged in the Globe last week included this: "… most of us would rather live in a society where people get murdered once in a while, than in one where there is no privacy… " One of the dead in B.C.’s current investigation was just 14. "No privacy" means having your finger pricked and then carrying on.
Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be Canadian.
The law is a cold, blunt instrument, but we have nothing better. Courtrooms, where we test the law, are sterile places where evidence can spark emotion but where judgment must remain cool and unfettered. Investigation, too, must be objective and just as cool.
None of it should be sidelined by a professed indignation that is more obstructionist than progressive.
Some say putting science to work in this way is lazy policing. Others say DNA has revolutionized crime-fighting.
Some say a sweep puts us closer to a police state. Others, that it’s just a seldom-used tool that catches killers.
Many wish organizations such as B.C.’s watchdog group occasionally offered more public concern about the vulnerable souls that invariably fall prey to the sickest of society and less about its Orwellian fears.
Hope for many would be renewed if Manitoba’s task force reviewing the cases of missing and murdered women were in a position to consider a DNA dragnet. Perhaps then some of those civil libertarians could take a look into the eyes of those who have been suffering and waiting years for answers before twisting a benign intrusion of privacy into a human rights catastrophe.
Robert Marshall is a security consultant and a former Winnipeg police detective