Comparing DNA from crime scenes from decades ago on profiles on genealogy websites led investigators to a relative of the alleged Golden State killer, and of them, to the suspect himself, the Sacramento Bee reported today.
Also known as Original Night Stalker and East Area Rapist, the Golden State Killer is suspected of committing 51 rapes and 12 murders in California between 1974 and 1986. On Tuesday, officers arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo in Citrus. Heights, California in relation to crimes. The team found him comparing the DNA collected at the crime scene with the genetic profiles on the genealogy websites, said District Chief District Attorney Steve Grippi The Sacramento Bee .
Although the researchers did not find a perfect hit, they did find a close one: the partial DNA pairing of a relative, which eventually led the researchers to DeAngelo. DeAngelo had lived in areas that matched the location of the crimes, and when investigators compared the DNA collected from an object that DeAngelo threw to the DNA of the crime scene, they found a coincidence.
Tracing suspects through the DNA of a family member is controversial enough when the police do so through their own databases. The FBI's national genetic database, for example, includes DNA from federal convicts and arrested who have not been convicted, legal experts Natalie Ram and Michael Seringhaus explain in Slate . But critics say the practice may expose citizens to additional scrutiny simply because a relative is in a DNA database, possibly representing a violation of their civil rights.
Family records have helped the application of the law to detect notorious suspects before – such as the so-called "Grim Sleeper" and the "Roaming Rapist" in California, according to the LA Times . But the technique has also led to the application of the law to innocent people, such as Michael Usry, whom the police tracked through a genealogy study that had been made available to the public. The police later decided he was innocent, and apologized for the inconvenience, says LA Times .
If you wonder how this investigation #goldenstatekiller fell because of Michael Michael Usry Jr, and he realized that the police officer would not need a court order if the company complied or if the data were available from the public (for example, WikiTree, etc.).
– Erin Murphy (@ErinMurphysLaw) April 27, 2018
Other databases such as WikiTree and YHRD make genetic data freely available, where police could easily access them. And the police would not need a court order if a company cooperated by providing user data, says law professor and criminal justice expert Erin Murphy .
The 23andMe direct consumer genetic testing company told The Verge that it did not help the authorities in the case. "Generally speaking, our policy is to resist investigations by the authorities to protect the client's privacy," a 23andMe spokesperson said in a statement sent by email. "23andMe has never provided information about clients to law enforcement officials."
Ancestry.com also denied having been in contact with the authorities of the case. "Ancestry advocates for the privacy of its members and will not share any information with the police unless it is bound by a valid legal process," a company spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to The Verge. The company publishes such requests in its annual transparency reports. Helix and National Geographic did not respond immediately to requests for comments.
When asked if the law enforcement agencies could have used the 23andMe data that had been sold to another company, a 23andMe spokesperson replied, simply, "No"
Additional information provided by Russell Brandom.