The Golden State Killer had raped and murdered for ten years and hidden in plain sight for decades before he was finally caught, years after terrorizing Californians. His crime spree involved nearly 90 victims, and because he was a former police officer, he knew how to evade detection and capture for decades. What finally led to his apprehension? It all came down to genetic genealogy.
What is Genetic Genealogy?
Millions of people worldwide have participated in genetic DNA testing in the search for unknown relatives or as they look for clues to diseases that are hereditary. Most of them probably never thought those bits of DNA would one day be used to track down perpetrators of criminal activity, but that is exactly what is happening with the technology these days. Here is how it works, in a nutshell.
- A criminal leaves DNA evidence at a crime scene.
- Investigators check FBI and other databases, and if they cannot find a match, they turn to genealogy websites.
- Investigators fabricate a profile for a genealogy website using the DNA they have recovered from a crime scene, hoping to score a match.
- When a near-match is discovered, detectives identify relatives—including those who may never have used the websites– using the newfound information.
- Police have multiple leads at this point and start following the trails in hopes that one of them will lead to a suspect.
Is That Ethical?
Yes, it is a good thing that someone like the Golden State Killer was finally made to pay for his crimes. But for someone who is considered participating in genetic DNA testing or who has already done so, it may be a little concerning that law enforcement can now access the most minuscule pieces of your DNA in order to search for criminals. Do people understand that when they submit their DNA, it may be subject to forensic analysis by law enforcement? Even if it is spelled out in the company’s terms of service, do people read that and comprehend the potential consequences? Whatever happened to privacy, anyway? In the case of the Golden State Killer, police would have had to falsely claim that the DNA they uploaded to the website was authorized, was their own, or was from someone for whom they had legal guardianship. That could bring questions as to whether or not the evidence was legally obtained.
DNA Questions in General
Setting aside the question of whether genealogy testing should be accessed by police, no discussion of DNA testing is complete without acknowledging that the misuse/overinterpretation of such evidence is a real risk in the criminal justice system. Clearly, the fact that DNA was located at a crime scene does not prove that the person was there during the commission of the crime, let alone guilty of it. And that does not begin to address the fact that DNA evidence could be compromised if not properly collected and stored. Continue reading