Your DNA could be the key to solving a cold case, even if you aren’t the person who committed the crime. More law enforcement agencies across the country are using a new scientific technique to bring justice to grieving families.
It’s called Genetic Genealogy and detectives are looking at the branches of your family tree to find their suspect.
But recently, they’ve hit a roadblock and they’re asking for your help.
In a small library on the westside of Jacksonville, big books sit on the shelves full of history that can help solve some family mysteries.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’ve made a lot of connections,” Alana Masters said.
Masters is a member of the Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society.
“This is where I’ve actually used DNA matches,” Masters explained.
For years, she’s researched family members she knew little about, and in the process, found some new ones, too.
“I’ve even gone to visit them and got to hear their stories,” Masters added.
Recently in Orlando at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Chief of Forensic Services Lori Napolitano gave a presentation about how her team has solved four cold cases in one year using genetic genealogy.
“We go back in time to great grandparents or great-great grandparents,” Napolitano said. “We come forward to living descendants of those people and then we look for who might be in the right place at the right time to commit the crime and we provide those leads to investigators.”
Florida is the only state with a genetic genealogy team at the state level and what they do is not all that different from what Alana does in the library. Napolitano and her team can build family trees, by entering DNA profiles from crime scenes, in public genealogy databases like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA.
“The strength of our matches comes in the strength of how many people the DNA profile is compared too,” Napolitano said. “So, the more DNA profiles we can compare to, the better matches we can get and the more cases we can solve or the less time it takes to solve a case.”
Genetic genealogy is normally used after DNA matches can’t be found in the national criminal database, known as CODIS. The technique gained popularity after it was used to arrest the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, in 2018.
Here on the First Coast, Brandon Young, an accused serial rapist was arrested after, police say, DNA from rape kits matched a family member who ultimately led them to Young.
“A lot of times it’s family members you don’t even know,” Allison Nunes said. “It’s second and third cousins and most people don’t know their second or third cousin or beyond.”
Nunes is the Chief Operating Officer of DNA Labs International, a company specializing in forensic DNA analysis. In May of last year, she says GEDmatch changed it’s policy, limiting law enforcement involvement on its website. Users must now give permission for their DNA profiles to be used and that has reduced the potential DNA pool for investigations.
“Every time we enter a profile, it’s a very rare match,” Nunes added. “Not close at all. So it’s not really worth spending the time looking for a relative at this point.”
With a smaller pool of people to compare DNA with, fewer cold cases are getting solved.
“That took our pool of samples that we compare to from a little over a million to about a 140,000 now and that’s about 12 percent of what it once was,” Napolitano said.
But, it’s understandable why the average person might not want their DNA profile shared with law enforcement. Besides their own privacy concerns, a single person can put other family members, who don’t want to be involved in legal issues, in an uncomfortable position.
“The general population, as long as you’re not a serial killer, is ok with you searching the database for rapist and murderers and trying to connect the dots to solve those type of crimes and I think genuinely would want to help if they knew more about it,” Nunes said.
DNA Labs International
Right now, there are a lot of questions about how genetic genealogy can be used in the courtroom.
Recently, it was used as evidence in a murder case in Washington state after a few objections. Once again, law enforcement would like for everyone to upload their DNA profiles into these public databases. But, it’s all up to you and your comfort level.