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In Louisiana, debate over a DNA dragnet

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Shannon Kohler doesn't even drive a white pickup truck. Yet police singled him out anyway, in one of America's largest DNA dragnets to date.

Authorities say sightings of a white pickup truck, along with DNA evidence, connect the brutal murders of four women found since September 2001 along Louisiana's back roads - and could be tied to a fifth murder, a woman nabbed on Christmas Eve from a Subway parking lot across the Mississippi River from here.

Mr. Kohler, who drives a wrecked Dodge sedan with a red stripe and has phone records proving he was home when the murders occurred, is not a suspect. Police targeted him on the basis of anonymous tips, an old burglary conviction, and the fact that he'd once worked on a street where the first victim's cellphone was found. But his swift protest against the test - a cheek swab - and a clerical slip in the court record that made his name public, have put him at the center of a larger feud over privacy, DNA dragnets, and an expanding genetic database that, critics fear, could become a genomic version of Big Brother.

The request for DNA, says Mr. Kohler, is "a Fourth Amendment violation" - a breach of his protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

But to local police, it's a desperate strategy in a puzzling case: a serial killer who chooses victims with no clear regard for age, race, or habits. In Louisiana, nearly 1,000 men have been tested for a DNA match - mostly on the basis of anonymous tips - and close to 800 have been cleared. Because time is critical, says West Baton Rouge chief deputy Mike Cazes, most have willingly complied. "Anybody that's been approached ..., and [the officer] explains why - most of them say, 'Sure, I'd be happy to.' " In light of such cooperation, those who hesitate - as did Kohler and 14 others - draw swift notice. "A court order would be issued immediately," says Mr. Cazes, "and they would be swabbed."


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