Your family tree can be built using a cheek swab and a home DNA kit, but the same technique can also be used to solve decades-old mysteries, find missing persons, and even catch murderers.
Genetic genealogy has been utilized more frequently in recent years to reexamine cold cases, but fresh concerns have been raised about how the technology might be applied in investigations that are already in progress.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has released statistics showing that at least 23 cases have involved the use of genetic genealogy. At least five unidentified person cases and at least four homicide cases have been solved using this technique thus far.
Unidentified Person Identification
Near St. Paul in 1976, a woman solely known as “Lilydale Jane Doe” was plucked from the Mississippi River. She had probably been dead for several weeks. After 45 years, the case became unsolved and no one knew who she was or where she came from. Before genetic genealogist Tracie Boyle, who resides in New Jersey, became involved, her identity remained a mystery.
“We were aware that when she was a young child, her body was discovered floating in the Mississippi River. I guess she was like 22 at the time of her death, so it was awful that she was so young, “added Boyle.
Boyle is one of almost 100 volunteers throughout the country who work with the nonprofit DNA Doe Project, which analyzes public DNA databases to find family ties using a process called genetic genealogy to assist locate unidentified remains.
Boyle stated, “It’s not much different than anyone doing their genealogy.” Reverse engineering a family tree is what it is.
Boyle assisted in identifying “Lilydale Jane Doe” using that technique.
Roberta Seyfert was her true name. She was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1954. However, many doubts continue with the cause of her death still a mystery, according to the medical examiner documents.
What it Does
Although the concept of genetic genealogy may sound complex, it is rather simple. If you wish to identify your victim or possibly even a suspect and all you have in the DNA, you can submit that genetic material to select public DNA databanks like GED Match.
From there, you can search for family matches, working your way from extended family to closer ones like parents in hopes of discovering your target.
Use by Minnesota’s Law Enforcement
To reexamine unsolved instances, law enforcement organizations are increasingly resorting to genetic genealogy.
According to BCA Superintendent Drew Evans, it has only been used thus far in instances that are what are known as “cold cases” and in which a complete DNA profile is available.
Since the DNA testing utilized for genetic genealogy is different from that conducted at the state crime lab, the BCA now relies on outside organizations.
“It is a tool for generating leads. It is genuinely utilized in situations where we are attempting to solve the unsolvable and have run out of other procedures and techniques, and it gives us a lead to see if we can identify the offender using this technology “explained Evans.
A case in point is the 1993 stabbing death of Jeanne Childs in her Minneapolis apartment, which was solved in large part thanks to genetic genealogy.
The investigation was abandoned for 25 years until Jerry Westrom was identified after DNA from the crime scene was put through modern public genealogical databases.
Investigators had already followed Westrom to a Wisconsin hockey game where he discarded a used napkin by the time he was hauled in for questioning. The napkin was a crucial piece of DNA evidence that finally resulted in Westrom’s being found guilty of killing Childs.
Utilizing Technology in Current Cases
The murder of four University of Idaho students last year focused on what may be one of the most significant cases involving genetic genealogy.
It has been widely reported that law enforcement identified their main suspect Bryan Kohberger using genetic genealogy and public DNA databases.
According to Jamie Spaulding, a professor of criminal justice and forensic science at Hamline University, “I think what’s remarkable about that particular case is that genetic genealogy is not addressed anywhere in the court papers or affidavits at this moment.”
Spaulding stated that he will be closely observing how the legal case involving genetic genealogy is handled.
“Moving ahead, does that impact how it’s practiced or does that set some standards for this? Because there are now many distinct methods that it is done throughout the nation. There are no accepted norms of behavior, “explained Spaulding.
The BCA is not aware of any ongoing cases in Minnesota where genetic genealogy has been applied.
Genetic genealogy is still unregulated in criminal cases, and it is currently unknown how the technology might be applied in ongoing cases in Minnesota shortly.
According to BCA Superintendent Evans, “I believe we should carefully consider where this could offer value, especially in the most heinous acts that we observe that cause substantial community concern or cases where we can bring answers to families continuingly.”
Is it moral?
The utilization of genetic genealogy raises significant ethical issues, according to Jamie Spaulding of Hamline University.
“As a result, you are actively looking into persons who you are certain could not have committed [a crime]. I believe it’s an ethical question and discussion that the community is having “Spaulding remarked. The right to privacy is another issue that the media frequently discusses, in my opinion.
According to their websites, certain DNA testing organizations, including Ancestry and 23andMe, take privacy into account while developing their policies and do not immediately make your genetic information available to police enforcement.
Some open databases, such as GED Match, which are useful for law enforcement investigations, demand that you input your genetic information. You may need to “opt-in” before giving law enforcement access to your genetic data in certain of those public data repositories.
The efficiency, labor needed for investigations, and legal restrictions of the technology all present difficulties.
“The technology has a proven track record of success in Minnesota and across the nation, but it’s a lead and a lead in criminal investigations because it doesn’t identify the person who committed the crime in the same way that traditional DNA, which was used in our laboratories daily, does,” said BCA Superintendent Evans. “It’s crucial to create a solid strategy that supports this kind of technology.”
The moment has come to consider how we might make the most of this technology, Evans remarked.