Genealogy and law enforcement, the DNA controversy

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by Isabella Maldonado

There is nothing more personal, more intimate, than your DNA. The very essence of your being, your genetic makeup influences—but does not necessarily determine—many things about who you are. Science that used to be confined to laboratories has been made available to consumers. More and more, people are submitting their DNA to private companies who create a genetic profile for them. Growing databases allow an individual to learn about their ancestry, inherited tendencies, or potential health concerns. It’s fascinating. It’s enlightening. It’s fun.

Before retirement, my last position was Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. That was a few years ago, and times have changed. The pace of advancement in the field of investigative forensic analysis is mind-boggling, and the courts cannot keep up with scientific innovation. For that reason, the recent controversy involving DNA analysis—specifically familial matches from corporate databases—used to identify suspects in criminal cases, is of particular interest to me.

When law enforcement began accessing genetic databases established by private companies, I was both excited and concerned. From the perspective of someone familiar with the frustration of trying to catch a dangerous criminal while following the rule of law, any new tool is welcome. On the other hand, people who submit genetic material to a commercial company may not want a government organization accessing that information. Not even to solve a crime.

The situation made national headlines in the Golden State Killer case. Police had been frustrated for decades by an unsub they had linked to more than 50 rapes and 12 murders. With no viable leads in sight, an enterprising police detective submitted DNA obtained from several of the crime scenes to a genetics company using a fake profile and without divulging the circumstances. The private company, following their own procedure, duly processed the sample and produced a report identifying several distant family matches in its database.

Acting on this information, police contacted the relatives to pursue the fresh lead. Through standard investigative techniques involving extensive interviews, establishing timelines, eliminating potential suspects, and other meticulous research, detectives narrowed their search down to one man. A subsequent court ordered warrant for his DNA was a positive match for the serial killer.

DNA sample

There was no doubt that the police had found their man, but a nationwide debate ensued about their methods. Detectives put the case together using standard procedures once the suspect’s family was identified, but HOW the family came to law enforcement attention caused concern for some.

In Direct-to-consumer genetic testing, the samples are provided voluntarily. In fact, consumers pay for the service and sign agreements allowing the company in question to use their DNA. Those agreements, however, were not co-signed by everyone in their entire family tree, thus the privacy debate.

Some states have enacted laws requiring the companies to disclose whether they share a client’s genetic profile with third parties and allowing them to opt out of that process. The companies are responding by developing more policies about sharing as well. Recently, a new cottage industry has sprung up offering to help consumers delete their DNA profiles from privately-maintained databases.

But what about catching criminals? What about stopping predators before they find new victims? If your loved one were murdered by a serial killer, would you protest police use of private genetic databases to identify a suspect? Would you be angry if the killer struck again while the killer’s DNA profile remained confined to the National DNA Index System (a law enforcement-managed criminal database run by the FBI) with no matches found?

The issue is that NDIS, like IAFIS (the FBI-maintained fingerprint database) may not have a match on file when police submit the data. In the past, that meant playing a waiting game, hoping the suspect would eventually get caught for something else and have their profile entered to get a hit. If the suspect was careful—or just lucky—that process could take years, or never happen at all. It is likely this frustration was what prompted the detective in the Golden State Killer case to come up with a creative way to garner a new lead…and eventually, to crack the case.

Public debate rages on, but personally, I’m in favor of using any technique that brings the correct person to justice for their crimes while following the law. Since the law isn’t fully settled yet, I’ll be watching closely as these cases play out through the court system.

In the meantime, if you were one of the detectives on the Golden State Killer case, what would you do?

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