This article in Wired got me hooked on all things “familial DNA”. Here’s an intriguing excerpt and lead-in explanation to the concept:
THE THREE MEN who showed up at Michael Usry’s door last December were unfailingly polite. They told him they were cops investigating a hit-and-run that had occurred a few blocks away, near New Orleans City Park, and they invited Usry to accompany them to a police station so he could answer some questions. Certain that he hadn’t committed any crime, the 36-year-old filmmaker agreed to make the trip.
The situation got weird in the car. As they drove, the cops prodded Usry for details of a 1998 trip he’d taken to Rexburg, Idaho, where two of his sisters later attended college—a detail they’d gleaned by studying his Facebook page. “They were like, ‘We know high school kids do some crazy things—were you drinking? Did you meet anybody?’” Usry recalls. The grilling continued downtown until one of the three men—an FBI agent—told Usry he wanted to swab the inside of Usry’s cheek but wouldn’t explain his reason for doing so, though he emphasized that their warrant meant Usry could not refuse.
The bewildered Usry soon learned that he was a suspect in the 1996 murder of an Idaho Falls teenager named Angie Dodge. Though a man had been convicted of that crime after giving an iffy confession, his DNA didn’t match what was found at the crime scene. Detectives had focused on Usry after running a familial DNA search, a technique that allows investigators to identify suspects who don’t have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose close relatives have had their genetic profiles cataloged. In Usry’s case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable—a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.
Usry, whose story was first reported in The New Orleans Advocate, was finally cleared after a nerve-racking 33-day wait—the DNA extracted from his cheek cells didn’t match that of Dodge’s killer, whom detectives still seek. But the fact that he fell under suspicion in the first place is the latest sign that it’s time to set ground rules for familial DNA searching, before misuse of the imperfect technology starts ruining lives.
Mitch Morrissey, Denver’s district attorney and one of the nation’s leading advocates for familial DNA searching, stresses that the technology is “an innovative approach to investigating challenging cases, particularly cold cases where the victims are women or children and traditional investigative tactics fail to yield a solid suspect.” Familial DNA searches have indeed helped nab people who might otherwise have evaded justice. In the most celebrated example, Los Angeles police arrested a man believed to be the Grim Sleeper serial killer after discovering that the crime scene DNA shared a significant number of genetic markers with that of a convicted felon—who turned out to be the man’s son.
Pitching forward to today when over the weekend, I caught this bit of news on the radio:
Bill Medley’s (of the Righteous Brothers) ex-wife’ s murderer was captured – 44 years later and via the use of familiar DNA – a suspect identified through examination of his family member’s DNA.
From the Washington Post:
Nearly 41 years to the day after the brutal death of Karen Klaas, her 1976 murder has been solved, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The case captivated the public four decades ago because of its shocking circumstances and a celebrity connection: Klaas had been attacked at her home in Hermosa Beach, a small oceanfront California city that even now sees only a handful of murders per decade.
Klaas also was the ex-wife of Righteous Brothers singer Bill Medley, whose voice had become ubiquitous in the 1960s with hits like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and “Unchained Melody.”
On Jan. 30, 1976, police found the 32-year-old Klaas unconscious at home. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled with her pantyhose, police said.
Klaas was taken to a hospital, where she remained comatose for five days. She died Feb. 4, 1976.
Her murder would remain Hermosa Beach’s longest-running cold case, detectives said in 2009, when they renewed their plea to the public for any witnesses to come forward, the Associated Press reported then.
At the time, detectives released new details about the suspected killer — a “shaggy-haired, bearded man in a trench coat and blue jeans” — based on two witnesses who said they had seen him leaving Klaas’s house, the AP reported.
Detectives had been able to obtain a DNA profile of Klaas’s murderer in the 1990s, but no profiles in the national DNA database were ever a match, according to the AP.
In statements over the weekend, the sheriff’s department did not name suspects or specify whether any arrests had been made — only noting that the case had been solved by using “familial DNA, which identified the killer.”
The use of familial DNA emerged over the past decade as a way for investigators to search for “close-to-perfect matches” among relatives of a convict, The Washington Post reported in 2008.
However, the technique has also attracted criticism and ethical questions from those who argue that family members could become “genetic informants” without consent.
“If practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance,” Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Post at the time.
(We waited as long as we could for that update today but it was finally time to publish. We will be updating this Bulletin accordingly this week.)
Truly life becomes a circle – with the present affected by the past for future outcomes (investigation, trial, sentencing) – with criminal evidence science.
We’ll keep you posted.
BNI Operatives: Situationally aware.
As always, be safe.