For three years, police had come up empty in the search for whoever killed Allison Feldman, a 31-year-old Scottsdale woman who was sexually assaulted before she was bludgeoned to death in her home.
The man who eventually was arrested in connection with the murder, Ian Mitcham, 42, had been in police custody for unrelated cases three different times after Feldman’s death in February 2015.
Still, investigators weren’t able to identify the suspected killer.
It wasn’t until police used a method known as familial DNA search that led investigators to Mitcham, whose DNA, according to Scottsdale police, was found at the crime scene, leading to his arrest last Tuesday.
Familial DNA search takes a DNA profile found at a crime scene and runs that genetic makeup through an offender database to find similar DNA profiles that can lead to potential relatives. Finding such a person can, in turn, lead to someone related to them as a suspect.
In Mitcham’s case, it was done through a DNA match with his brother, who is in the state database of DNA taken from people in prison. The method was used after no initial direct matches were found for Mitcham himself.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has charged Mitcham with first-degree murder, sexual assault and burglary. Authorities are holding him in the Maricopa County jail in lieu of a $5 million cash-only bond.
A rarely used method
The case is the first time an Arizona law enforcement agency has used this DNA matching method, which has been around for at least a decade, according to officials.
Arizona is one of 12 states now using the method. Others include California, Colorado and New York.
The technique helped close a Scottsdale case that had left people in Feldman’s neighborhood near Pima and Thomas roads worried for their safety.
It also provided her family some sense of relief.
Harley Feldman, Allison’s father, said he is grateful police used this method because investigators had run out of leads to follow.
“What’s really important here is the family,” he said. “It’s a way to get crimes against a family solved that may not get done any other way.”
For decades, DNA testing has been a staple of the criminal justice system, allowing police and lawyers to help solve crimes or exonerate people.
In many cases, forensic investigators use DNA left at a crime scene to match it to a specific known suspect or verify an innocent person’s alibi.
DNA, the components that make up an individual’s genetic code, can be found in things such as blood, saliva or skin.
But familial searching, which has served as a last-resort effort for some police agencies across the country, casts a wider net by allowing investigators to go through offender and qualifying arrestee databases to find potential close relatives of the person who may have committed a crime.
Simply having the DNA doesn’t mean investigators know who the person is, but this method allows them to narrow a potential pool of people through DNA of potential relatives.
While police say the method is just another crime-solving tool, critics say it can be seen as an invasion of privacy that could violate the Constitution’s 4th Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches.
Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for the county attorney’s office, defended the method saying that both federal law and state law allow for DNA collecting in certain criminal investigations.
“There are no privacy or 4th amendment protections for an unknown DNA profile left on a victim or at a crime scene,” she said in an e-mail.
Convicted brother leads to arrest
Scottsdale police requested the Arizona Department of Public Safety familial search in the case of Feldman, who was strangled and sexually assaulted with a beer bottle, because investigators had run out of leads.
According to court records, police had found DNA, that police say belonged to the killer, in Feldman’s dining room and the beer bottle.
Vince Figarelli, the superintendent of DPS crime lab system, said the method will be reserved for violent crime cases where leads have been exhausted. Lab technicians would only do one test at a time because it can take two to three months to complete, taking resources away from their caseload, he said.
DPS obtained the software needed for the method in July and completed the testing and validation process in November.
In Arizona, convicted felons or people arrested in certain sex or violent cases have to provide a DNA sample that is entered into a database, where police can cross-reference the results of a familial search to find someone closely related via DNA.
In Mitcham’s case, according to Scottdale’s police account, lab technicians used a DNA profile found at the crime scene and they found a genetic makeup in the offenders’ database that showed someone closely related to Mitcham was in prison, who happened to be his brother.
Police also used a blood sample an officer collected from Mitcham in a January 2015 DUI investigation, which was later dropped by the Scottsdale city attorney, to verify that Mitcham was the person whose DNA investigators found at the murder scene.
Officer Kevin Watts, a Scottsdale police spokesman, said police still had the 2015 blood sample because it wasn’t scheduled for destruction, which is usually done after a case is adjudicated.
After Feldman’s murder, Scottsdale police arrested Mitcham on a DUI charge in August 2015, to which he pleaded guilty. A month later, Mesa police arrested him on a cocaine possession charge, a case still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Then in January 2016, he was once again arrested on suspicion of driving drunk by a Scottsdale police officer, who collected a different blood sample, court records show. This case is also still pending in superior court.
At the time of these arrests, there was no evidence that would have indicated Mitchman was connected to Feldman’s murder, Watts said.
Overall, he said, “we feel that all evidence collected in this case was done in accordance with the Fourth Amendment.”
Arguments for and against familial searches
Sonia Suter, a professor at George Washington University Law School who has written about familial DNA searches, said the technique isn’t problematic but worries that states using the method don’t have guidelines to reduce the chances of targeting innocent people.
For example, she said, states should have policies that say the DNA found at a crime scene should hit a high percentage of a partial match found in an offender database in order to lessen the chance of going after an innocent person.
Ian Mitcham is suspected of killing 31-year-old Allison Feldman in her Scottsdale home in 2015. Police said they linked Mitcham to the murder through familial DNA; his brother is in state lockup for unrelated crimes.
Maricopa County Superior Court
“Just because it’s a partial match it doesn’t mean that person is a relative, it’s just a heightened chance that person could be a relative,” she said. “Familial searching isn’t, per se, problematic, but I want law enforcement to use all the techniques possible to reduce the risk of going after people who are likely innocent.”
She said it’s concerning Scottsdale police had Mitcham’s three-year-old blood sample in their evidence inventory because he was never convicted in that case.
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Jennifer Mnookin, dean of the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, once disapproved of the method but has had a change of heart because of the results it has produced in violent criminal cases.
“If thoughtful regulation is put around familial searching techniques, then we would be making a mistake pulling it out of bounds altogether given its crime-solving potential,” she said.
She added that with careful use, the trade-off between potential privacy issues and solving violent crimes is worth it.
“I think if there are provisions in place for cold cases, serious violent cases and rarely used, I think there’s a reasonable argument that the benefits outweigh the harm,” she said.
The arguments against familial search have been made in a lawsuit filed earlier this year in a state court in New York where the Legal Aid Society and Manhattan-based law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher say the method could lead law enforcement to contact innocent people to provide DNA sample in a “stop-and-swab encounter.”
“This new class of targets may be stopped and interrogated by the police. They may be pressured to provide a DNA sample in a “stop and swab” encounter with the police. Or their DNA may surreptitiously be sampled from discarded fast-food eating utensils or other objects,” the lawsuit says.
Washington, D.C., and Maryland have outlawed the technique. Unlike Arizona, California has a policy that police can only search the convicted felon database and not a database of all arrestees, to reduce the chances of targeting innocent people.
Success and failures
California led the way for familial searches in the country when it implemented policies for the method in 2008. Two years later, the technique helped investigators solve a high-profile case in Los Angeles.
The method led police to identify and arrest a serial murderer, Lonnie Franklin, Jr., known as the “Grim Sleeper,” who has since been convicted for 10 murders that he committed from1985 to 2007.
His DNA was found at a crime scene and investigators were able to partially match it with his son, whose DNA profile was in an offender database.
In order to confirm the DNA collected at the murder scenes did belong to Franklin, an undercover police officer pretended to be a waiter at a restaurant where the man was dinning. The undercover officer then collected a discarded piece of pizza Franklin partially ate and the DNA on the pizza matched the DNA at the murder scenes.
In 2014, Idaho police traveled to New Orleans to collect a DNA sample from Michael Usry because they believed he was a suspect in a 1996 murder, an example where police targeted an innocent person.
The investigators based their lead on a DNA sample Usry’s father gave to a genealogy project, which was then bought by Ancestry.com. Police had searched the genealogy company’s DNA profiles database, which was public at the time, and the company was court-ordered to turn over the father’s name to investigators.
Investigators said DNA found at the crime scene in Idaho had a partial match to the elder Usry, whose son had ties to Idaho. Ultimately, Usry’s DNA didn’t match the sample found at the crime scene.
Despite the mixed views, Feldman’s family has confidence police conducted the technique with ethics and is happy investigators used it.
“We’re thrilled this was put into effect,” said the woman’s sister, Kelly Feldman Weinblatt of Minnesota.
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