Cold cases,  DNA,  Genetics

Why Is Genetic Genealogy Revolutionizing Crime Solving?

Genetic genealogy optimizes crime solving

The combination of genealogy and genetics opens up immense possibilities for investigators

Genealogy attracts millions of enthusiasts worldwide. Over the past few years, this discipline has long been the preserve of aficionados spending hours consulting civil registries, but the arrival on the market of operators such as Ancestry, MyHeritage and LivingDNA has made it possible to explore immense genealogical resources, with the growing number of users of DNA sampling kits among the general public. In addition to their ethnic background, customers can access huge genealogical databases, which are updated daily with new profiles.

On this basis, American investigators have, since 2018, resorted to genetic genealogy, a method increasingly used in solving criminal cases. This method involves using DNA to trace kinship links between individuals and thus identify potential suspects. This technique has already been used to solve numerous cold cases. In this article, we’ll explore how genetic genealogy is used in the police-justice sphere. We will also examine the advantages and limitations of this method, as well as the ethical and legal implications of its use.

Genetic genealogy, a fertile ground for forensic science

La génétique généalogique optimise la science médico-légale

The first exploit of this recent technique dates back to 2018, with the arrest of American serial killer Joseph DeAngelo, aka the Golden State Killer, a former police officer who was active between 1974 and 1986. It was the identification of DNA from one of his distant cousins using a DNA genealogy company that tightened the noose around the man who scared California via three criminal episodes.

In 1974 and 1975, the Visalia Ransacker turned several homes upside down and burglarized them, eventually killing Claude Snelling with a revolver stolen during an earlier robbery. From 1976 to 1979, he struck in the Sacramento area, raping and sexually assaulting 23 young women. Over the next 7 years, he went on a bloody spree, killing 10 people, including 3 couples. As the years went by, the case became a cold case. In 2016, the investigation is reopened and the serial killer’s DNA is extracted from items collected at the crime scenes. There was no match with the DNA samples in the federal database. The situation became clearer when the profileis added to the database of GEDmatch, a private company with the DNA of DeAngelo’s cousin. Since then, more than 50 cold cases have been solved using this technique.

A highly effective technology, but not infallible

DNA testing highlights 22 genetic markers such as gender, ethnic group, hair and eye color and age. Genealogy can be used to draw up family trees and, in this way, weave links of kinship between individuals. In the case of the Golden State Killer, investigators obtained a match with his cousin’s profile, then worked on the members of this family and, by cross-referencing, defined potential suspects before isolating Joseph DeAngelo as a person of interest.

If the DNA is altered, or if the suspect’s DNA on the crime scene does not match any police database, a tail is usually sufficient to obtain a DNA sample. This was the technique used with David Sinopoli, who stabbed Lindy Sue Biechler 19 times in 1975 in Philadelphia. Partial DNA had been isolated from the victim’s underwear when this cold case was reopened in 2016. A researcher working for a private laboratory managed to establish that the murderer had Italian origins linked precisely to the town of Gasperina. Among the 300 persons of interest audited over the course of the investigation, Sinopoli was targeted. Investigators picked up a coffee cup discarded by the number 1 suspect at the airport in order to establish matches and confound David Sinopoli. If the criminal is deceased, investigators have the option of consulting his medical records or even exhuming their body in order to collect DNA. Genetic genealogy is proving to be a leading technique for targeting individuals involved in criminal cases.

However, like any technique, genetic genealogy has its limits. First of all, contamination of DNA by human hands is a not inconsiderable parameter. This was the case in the Heilbronn Phantom case in Germany. Murders between 1993 and 2008 were linked by the identification of a common DNA at the various crime scenes, before the German authorities realized that the swabs had been contaminated by an employee of the company manufacturing the cotton buds used to collect the DNA. Ethical considerations are also a major issue.

Consent and privacy remain key issues

L'utilisation des données personnelles, un point sensible

Customers of DNA genealogy companies have a variety of reasons for submitting their DNA to them. But they all have one common goal: to find out more about their parentage. Under no circumstances do they envisage their personal data being used by the police or the courts. On the other hand, what safeguards need to be put in place to prevent these private operators from selling confidential data to the highest bidder? Think, for example, of insurance companies, which may show a pronounced interest in analyzing the medical conditions of their policyholders. In the United States, these companies officially market their services to investigators. In fact, most of these operators are American, but their customers are of many different nationalities. American law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant before using these DNA genealogy companies. It is therefore important for regulations to be defined at national, if not supranational, level, so that this technique is perfectly regulated from a legal point of view.

Many countries are not legally equipped to use this method. In France, a criminal nicknamed “Le Predateur des Bois” (Woodland Predator) was recently convicted thanks to genetic genealogy, after an investigating judge asked the FBI to help, since the man’s DNA profile did not appear in the FNAEG, the French national DNA database. Passing on one’s DNA to a private operator is totally illegal in France, subject to a fine of 3,750 Euros. However, many French people have no hesitation in passing on swabs to American firms free to market their sampling kits beyond American borders, a fortiori on Internet. And, in the case of Le Prédateur des Bois, the French judge did not hesitate to circumvent a law that some consider too restrictive, in order to advance the investigation. This decision paid off, and the case was solved.

In its article Genetic genealogy: a double-edged sword (Le recours à la genealogie genetique : une arme a double tranchant | Jean-Philippe Nadeau, October 17th, 2020), Radio-Canada quotes Brett Williams, General Manager of Verogen, who asserts that his company does not request any medical information and that it offers its customers the choice of sharing their data with law enforcement agencies. Williams adds that in a democracy, privacy is an absolute right, but that not being raped or murdered is also a right, which is why Verogen offers its customers the opportunity to help the police by agreeing to share their data. Data piracy is another area of concern. To which Verogen’s Managing Director replies that only names, pseudonyms and e-mail addresses are retained, while DNA information is encrypted.

The difficult balance between ethics and justice

Genetic genealogy opens up immense prospects for investigators, who now have at their disposal a particularly effective method for solving criminal investigations when DNA, the ultimate proof according to some, enters the picture. Leading the way, the Americans are no longer hesitating to use specialized companies to bring justice to criminal cases that have been languishing for years, if not decades, since the statute of limitations does not apply to blood crimes committed on American territory. This technological booster does, however, raise a number of ethical issues, since it involves the use of private and therefore sensitive data. Legislation still seems to be lagging behind on this issue, depending on the country concerned. Legislators have their work cut out for them, whether to deliver justice at the risk of ignoring the right to confidentiality, or to leave the families of victims in distress and grief.

Read the article in French


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