by Kevin Bliss
Law enforcement agencies across the nation are moving toward adopting more genetic genealogy investigative techniques and training from genealogy experts apparently without first considering the implications such practices have on civil rights or any potential abuses.
Databases at consumer DNA collection companies, such as GEDmatch, FamilyTreeDNA, and Ancestry.com, are being used to compare markers from DNA found at crime scenes to locate possible suspects. This has led to arrests in a number of cases, including decades-old cold cases such as the serial rapist suspect in California dubbed the Golden State Killer. After the FBI sequenced DNA found at a crime scene, it was uploaded into GEDmatch where people with similar markers narrowed the possibility to branches of certain family trees that police examined for a person of the right age, in the right place, and who shared some of the same DNA. This led investigators to look at Joseph DeAngelo, and after a sample of his DNA was collected from his car door, they found him to be a perfect match. He now sits in jail awaiting trial on 13 murders and a score of rapes.
The case spotlights the practice of using public databases to trace crime-scene DNA. Ethical concerns rightfully have arisen. Consumers who submit DNA samples for the purpose of discovering their ancestry subject their entire family to possible suspicion in law enforcement investigations. Family secrets of infidelity, incest, or abandoned children, which have no bearing on criminal activity, might no longer be secret. Biologist Rori Rohlfs and bioethicist Stephanie Fullerton wrote, “Three hundred people, most of whom you do not know and have probably never met, can illuminate your genetic information. There is nothing that you can do about it, no way to opt out.” And that’s a problem.
In the case of the Golden State Killer’s arrest, this type of comparison first led investigators to a 73-year-old man in a nursing home after his daughter submitted her DNA to a website for genetic profiling. Based on matches in his daughter’s DNA markers, investigators gained a judge’s permission to obtain a DNA sample from the father, by force if necessary.
Another similar situation led the police in 2015 to suspect filmmaker Michael Usry of a 1996 murder. Both were later dismissed as suspects.
In addition to false accusations, opponents of the technique fear the effects of contamination, fraud, and mistakes that plague DNA testing.
While privacy agreements in consumer genealogy companies state that their databases are not open for law enforcement use, police nonetheless gain access to certain information when a warrant is applied. There are no current regulations governing genetic genealogy access or use.
Certain states have debated authorizing database searches only after all other investigative leads have been exhausted, and others outright banning their use. But the courts have yet to rule on the constitutionality of any case associated with genetic genealogy.
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