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Posted on: Aug 10, 2018

DNA Genealogy: To Catch a Killer?

By Jennifer Harrison, Lewis & Wilkins LLP

When I was in junior high, I remember my dad showing me the Prinz family bible. The Prinz family bible is a big ol' leather-bound bible that smells like mothballs and is full of interesting tidbits about my Prinz family ancestry. The most memorable obituary in there is of one of my great-great-something or others who stepped on a rake and ended up dying. I had this large vision in my 13-year-old brain (probably brought on by the multiple viewings of that summer’s hit "Scream") of my family member stepping on a rake and the prongs of the rake being what killed him. When I asked my dad for clarification, he explained our relative had stepped on an old, rusty rake and died from tetanus. Not as gory, but made more sense…

Since diving into the Prinz family bible, I have been fascinated with my ancestry. I love all of these new programs like 23andme and hearing people’s stories of what they have discovered of their ancestors. Even more fascinating to me is when my love of criminal law intersected with my love of ancestry.

Earlier this year, investigators used a genealogy website to track down the Golden State Killer. (Side note: the late Michelle McNamara’s book "I’ll be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" is apparently a page-turner and is on my must-read list before the summer ends.) The investigator took crime-scene DNA believed to be from the killer and entered into an online database. This search created a list of possible relatives, all who had used the program and voluntarily agreed to make their information public. Investigators then tracked down these family members to create a pool of people who could have been the suspect. 

This same idea of using genealogy databases helped investigators charge John Miller of the 1988 murder of April Tinsley in Allen County. See here. This newfound method is raising privacy concerns amongst users and owners of the databases alike. CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist stated, “the question now is how we can work together so nobody’s privacy is invaded and it doesn’t damage our industry. I would be devastated to see it come crashing down because of something like this.” See here.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on the use of genealogy websites in criminal investigations and how geneticists and users respond. Much like the Apple debate on whether or not they have to comply with orders to unlock a suspect’s phone, our ever-growing technology is impacting our criminal world and raising privacy and constitutional concerns among the masses.

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