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DNA from genealogy websites leads to cold-case arrests

September 5, 2018

The arrest of a suspect in a 30-year-old murder case was surprising news, but the story of how law enforcement found the alleged assailant was even more unusual.

In April 1988, 8-year-old April Tinsley of Fort Wayne was found dead in a ditch in Spencerville. She had been missing from her Fort Wayne home for about three days. Her death was ruled a homicide after an autopsy revealed she died of asphyxiation and had been sexually assaulted.

In the ensuing years, Fort Wayne police were taunted with messages scrawled on a barn and, later, on a note found next to used condoms confessing to the crime and promising to kill again. But then, earlier this year, law enforcement got a solid lead when a detective sent DNA samples from the crime scene to a genealogist who used a public DNA database.

Detectives then staked out John D. Miller and eventually retrieved three used condoms from his trash. Indiana State Police did an analysis and concluded the DNA in the condoms matched the sample found on Tinsley.

The news from Fort Wayne that a cold case had been solved using genetic databases available online was similar to stories from other states. California law enforcement relied on genealogy sites and databases to locate and arrest a man suspected to be the Golden State Killer, who is believed to be responsible for a string of rapes and murders during the 1970s and 1980s.

Using genetic genealogy to crack cold cases is making headlines, but it has not been tested in court. The individuals arrested and charged with the crimes are at the beginning of their cases, and questions of privacy and reliability have not been answered.

Morrison Morrison

Tim Morrison, former interim U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, had to mentally walk through the potential issues in this new area of criminal law to decide if the process violated constitutional protections against search and seizure. His verdict was that law enforcement’s reliance on genealogical databases will survive legal challenges, but he noted the issue will likely be fought in court for years.

Unintended evidence

The caveat to the cases is that the DNA was voluntarily uploaded to genetic databases when individuals put their genetic profile into websites that offer to help find lost relatives and trace family trees. California law enforcement used the database created by GEDmatch to identify the Golden State Killer suspect.

Even though the person arrested may not have been the one who posted the family’s DNA, Morrison, an adjunct professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, still does not see a Fourth Amendment violation. Police in Fort Wayne accessed the profile to identify the pool of potential offenders, then took items from the garbage that were in a public receptacle and, according to detectives, matched the DNA from the victim to Miller.

Morrison said the case is boiling down to two essential questions: how was the evidence seized by law enforcement, and did the seizure violate the Constitution? Again, walking through the scenario of taking the DNA left on the victim’s clothing and comparing it to the suspect’s DNA left on items he threw out, Morrison still sees no trouble.

Still, he noted, defense attorneys would probably raise concerns about how the commercial companies handled the DNA and identified the possible suspects.

‘Magic evidence’

Allen County chief public defender Randy Hammond said the presentation of DNA evidence is a high hurdle for suspects to overcome. Juries love to hear about “magic evidence” that identifies one person and links him or her to the crime, he said, noting the latest turn in crime fighting does not surprise him.

“I’m not surprised that law enforcement is using whatever resources are available to them to do their job and find the responsible person,” Hammond said. “The question is: is the information reliable and is it trustworthy?”

Karl Reich, chief scientific officer at Independent Forensics in Illinois, emphasized the list of suspects produced from the genealogical research is just the start. Police, he said, still have to wear out their shoe leather investigating the leads because the results from the websites are not foolproof. As an example, he pointed to an incident where police initially misidentified a 73-year-old man as the Golden State Killer.

The database of DNA maintained by the FBI — the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS — analyzes genetic material differently than the commercial databases. Therefore, Reich said, police need to create a pathway to make their own DNA connection.

He laid out the scenario of law enforcement officers creating fake accounts and submitting DNA from crime scenes to genealogical websites. When those online companies produce the DNA profile, the police upload it into a public database.

Once they get the list of suspects, then police have to investigate. They would collect a DNA sample from the person of interest and run that through CODIS to see what turns up.

Many unknowns

Reich believes the use of genealogy websites to solve crimes is a legitimate use of information that is available publicly. But he did raise questions as to whether people logging on and inserting their genetic profiles are fully aware their DNA may be accessed by others.

uliana-stacy-mug Uliana

Also, he pointed out the reliability of this method is unknown. People in the public only know about the successes police have had in using genealogical websites, but they are not told about any false leads and wrong accusations.

Like Morrison, Stacy Uliana had to think through the potential scenarios when questioned about this new method police are employing to solve cold cases. A criminal defense attorney in Bargersville who has handled high-profile murder cases, Uliana raised questions about the reliability of the genetic testing, how the DNA was collected, and how the chain of custody was maintained, as well as whether privacy rights were violated. Yet, she noted, the science is improving, and DNA can be pulled from smaller and smaller samples.

“I think this will be more of a big deal as technology advances,” Uliana said of online genetic databases. “DNA can unlock all sorts of things about you.”•

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