DNA access to police solves cases, raises ethical questions
A woman researching her ancestry submitted her DNA to a genealogy website and ended up leading police to her half brother, who left his DNA at a crime scene decades ago.
Raymond Charles Rowe pleaded guilty this year to the 1992 rape and murder of Christy Mirack, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher.
It has become a surprisingly common story in recent years as more Americans put their genetic materials into the public domain, allowing police some access.
Authorities said one company helped solve nearly 30 cold cases from May to December using DNA profiles submitted to genealogy sites and made available for public matching.
The work is conducted at places such as Parabon NanoLabs, where CeCe Moore and other genetic genealogists take crime scene DNA turned over by police and run it against profiles from 23andMe, Ancestry.com or other sites made public on GEDmatch by consumers looking for relatives they didn’t know existed.
In successful cases, Parabon is able to identify a narrow list of potential leads.
“I can point them to as few people as possible,” Ms. Moore told The Washington Times. “It’s really the strength of this process that we can help them zero in on just a handful or sometimes one person rather than having innocent people pulled into the investigation.”
The tactic helped nab William Earl Talbott II, a 55-year-old truck driver arrested in Washington state last year and charged with murdering two people more than 30 years ago. Scientists matched his DNA from the 1987 crime scene to one of his relatives.
The technique, used by genetic genealogists across the country, helped catch the “Golden State Killer,” Joseph James DeAngelo, who is reportedly responsible for 50 rapes and 12 killings dating back decades.
The successes, though, are raising all sorts of legal and ethical questions about consent.
GEDmatch, which uses DNA results to match people who want to connect, is the linchpin.
Curtis Rogers, founder of GEDmatch, said the company is upfront with customers.
“We make it clear to our users that law enforcement may be using GEDmatch. Users are aware of this before placing their information on GEDmatch,” he said in a statement to The Times.
David Kaye, a professor at Penn State Law, said there is no privacy issue at stake in a suspect nabbed by genealogy and a relative’s DNA.
“The suspect here can’t really raise the privacy claim of the person who said, ‘I want to put my information on GEDmatch so people can find me as a relative,’” Mr. Kaye said.
But there is uncertainty about what would happen if law enforcement obtains a subpoena to go after DNA files at 23andMe or Ancestry.com, where users have not consented to matching.
“It’s a stretch how safe this stuff is from police subpoenas,” Mr. Kaye said.
Both companies say their customers control the DNA files.
“We have never turned over customer data to law enforcement,” said Christine Pai, a spokeswoman for 23andMe.
“We don’t share data with insurance carriers, employers or third-party marketers, and we will only share with law enforcement pursuant to valid legal process,” said Jasmin Jimenez, a spokeswoman for Ancestry.com, referring to a court order or search warrant.
Still, the worry of exposing relatives to the law by submitting one’s own DNA is powerful.
In Maryland, Delegate Charles E. Sydnor III introduced legislation this year prohibiting searches of a DNA database for the purpose of identifying perpetrators.
House Bill 30 includes a five-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine for an illegal search.
“How many of us are really thinking this really could be used by law enforcement and we are not only subjecting us to a DNA search, but we are subjecting our entire family to it,” the delegate told Fox 5.
For others, DNA matching has helped bring closure to deep wounds.
In one Florida case last year, police used DNA collected from the 1999 murder of Deborah Dalzell and had Parabon build a genetic profile and attempt a database match.
Scientists found a rough match through the DNA search. Although that person wasn’t implicated, police narrowed it down to two siblings. One was a convicted felon whose DNA was in the national database. The DNA didn’t match, so police settled on the other, Luke Edward Fleming. He stands charged with the murder.
Peggy Thistle, Dalzell’s sister, joined police for the press conference last year announcing the arrest.
“We have all waited over 19 years for this news,” she said.
Ms. Thistle told other families to not lose hope because the DNA technology could someday lead detectives to solving cases.
“My message would be persevere, don’t lose hope, keep going,” Ms. Thistle said.