MASS. - A forensic anthropologist, a senator, and a missing child advocate: three women from very different backgrounds, but all equally fighting for passage of a familial DNA bill that is making its way through the state legislature.
If passed, Bill S.1595 would add cutting edge technology to the crime solving arsenal of state law enforcement.
When DNA is discovered at a crime scene today, it is run through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) in order to find a match. The system is comprised of DNA samples from four different sources or “indices”: convicted offenders, past crime scene samples, unidentified human remains, and DNA from missing persons – directly from the person or through a family member in order to locate the missing individual.
In instances when no direct match to the criminal is made through CODIS, the proposed bill would allow law enforcement to run another CODIS search, one that looks for relatives of the perpetrator. The search would only look at relatives already in CODIS – meaning that they fit one of the four criteria. By looking at the familial DNA of parents and siblings in CODIS, detectives would be able to have another investigative tool in which they could identify and catch murders, rapists, and other violent offenders.
Heather Bish wrote the familial DNA bill in hopes of using the technology to solve her sister’s murder case as well as hundreds of others. Her teenage sister, Molly Bish, disappeared from her lifeguard post at Comins Pond in Warren in 2000 and was later found murdered. An unidentified man with a mustache and driving a white car was last seen at the crime scene and always a suspect in the case.
“I have been working on this familial DNA bill for about two years now and it was with the intent that it would lead us to this person in the white car,” Bish said.
Familial DNA is currently being used in 14 other states and the accuracy of the technology has yielded impressive results.
“It’s never convicted anyone wrongfully and, in fact, the Innocence Project in Michigan uses it to exonerate people,” Bish said.
While Massachusetts is known for being the forerunner of technological innovation, Bish says that state labs have policies that have not been updated to allow the use of these new technologies.
“So, I am proposing this little, sort of safeguards and guidelines in order to do this testing,” Bish said. “That really is all the bill is. It is the how, and the who does what, and the safeguard to keep those privacy concerns safe.”
From TikTok videos focused on bringing public attention to the bill, to making phone calls and meeting with legislators throughout Massachusetts, Bish is determined to pass the law in order to provide law enforcement with a vital investigative tool. She encourages the public to call their local legislators and advocate that they help pass Bill S. 1595 in the legislature.
“It just really gets the bad guy. It hasn’t been thrown out in court, and it hasn’t been wrong," Bish said. “It is what I think are called one of those ‘no-brainer legislations.’”
After years of working with the Bish family and supporting their missing children advocacy, Senator Anne Gobi became involved with Bill S. 1595 when Heather Bish reached out to her.
Originally, the bill was filed late in the previous legislative session, but the pandemic struck which stopped the bill in its tracks. As a result, the bill was refined and strengthened by the Forensic Science Oversight Board and was refiled in late March. The bill is currently in the Public Safety Committee with a hearing date expected sometime in the fall.
“This is a proven science,” Sen. Gobi said. “We’re saying use this proven science. Let’s give [the victims’ families] resolution and get the bad guys off the street.”
Dr. Ann Marie Mires, director of the Molly Bish Center and Forensic Criminology at Anna Maria College, was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to the Forensic Science Oversight Board which reviewed the familial DNA bill.
“This bill opens up another avenue in these old, unresolved crimes where no leads or databases have established a suspect,” Dr. Mires said.
Presently, forensic labs cannot run familial DNA because it is not in the state statute. The bill would open this pathway for testing.
While this testing capability could provide meaningful answers for law enforcement and victims’ families, Dr. Mires described the importance of this system being highly regulated which is also outlined in the bill.
Dr. Mires said that running familial DNA would only be used as a “last resort” for violent, unresolved crimes only after searches for direct DNA matches had already been run through the four indices in CODIS.
Once familial DNA narrows down a suspect, prosecutors must still establish probable cause through means, motive, and opportunity in order to use the name and seek an indictment, she explained.
Dr. Mires said, “That’s the beauty of what we are trying to do: A) educate the public B) bring in this robust technology under very prescribed conditions C) protect public safety.”