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posted by martyb on Monday July 01 2019, @10:39AM   Printer-friendly
from the dept.

Genetic genealogy — in which DNA samples are used to find relatives of suspects, and eventually the suspects themselves — has redefined the cutting edge of forensic science, solving the type of cases that haunt detectives most: the killing of a schoolteacher 27 years ago, an assault on a 71-year-old church organ player, the rape and murder of dozens of California residents by a man who became known as the Golden State Killer.

But until a trial this month in the 1987 murder of a young Canadian couple, it had never been tested in court. Whether genetic genealogy would hold up was one of the few remaining questions for police departments and prosecutors still weighing its use, even as others have rushed to apply it. On Friday, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

“There is no stopping genetic genealogy now,” said CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist whose work led to the arrest in the murder case. “I think it will become a regular, accepted part of law enforcement investigations.”

Detective James H. Scharf of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Washington State took all of six minutes on the stand to describe how a semen sample collected from one of the victim’s clothing led to two second cousins of the suspect, and then to the name of the man on trial, William Talbott II.

The defense could have challenged the use of genetic genealogy on privacy grounds, or as a violation of people’s right to control their personal data. Instead, defense lawyers did not pose a single question about the technique. After more than two days of deliberation, the jury convicted Mr. Talbott on two counts of murder.

Mr. Talbott’s lawyers said they viewed genetic genealogy as just another way of generating investigative leads. “Police have always used a variety of things to develop tips,” said Rachel Forde, a public defender, in an interview. The brother of one of the victims had even consulted a psychic at one point, she said.

But if the case quelled some investigators’ concerns, it was not likely to put to rest a raging debate over the ethics of using the technique to solve crimes and how to balance privacy with the demands of law enforcement.

Just during the time Mr. Talbott spent awaiting trial, genealogy databases have changed their rules about cooperating in criminal investigations, and then changed them again. Cordial forums for genealogists have erupted into vicious battlefields. And the technique, once reserved for rape and murder cases gone vexingly cold, has been applied in less serious, more recent crimes, raising alarm among privacy advocates and long-time users of family history databases.

“We’re currently in a state of flux,” said Blaine Bettinger, a genetic genealogist and lawyer. “There is no guidance from any direction.”

[...] Long before an arrest in the Golden State Killer case in April 2018 made genetic genealogy famous, a small group of experts knew that identifying suspects in criminal cases was possible. But they were divided over whether it was ethically acceptable.

The group — some call them the “genealogy influencers” — debated the issues on blogs and in private forums. Each member has a claim to fame: the first to help an adoptee find her biological mother, the first to identify a body, the first to find a killer’s full name.

One school of thought holds that if users join an easily searchable site, they should not expect to maintain control over how their information is used, and that criminal investigations serve the greater good. Another says that people deserve to be able to make informed decisions about how their DNA — the most personal of personal information — is used.

Read the full story at The New York Times

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  • (Score: 2) by AthanasiusKircher on Monday July 01 2019, @04:44PM (1 child)

    by AthanasiusKircher (5291) on Monday July 01 2019, @04:44PM (#862036) Journal

    One question is whether this evidence is admissible at all, or does it violate the defendant's rights? In relevant example, the defendant might argue that doing what's effectively a DNA match by proxy is an unconstitutional search violating the 4th amendment. There are arguments to be made that the police should be required to meet the same legal standard they'd need to meet to get a court to order blood drawn from the defendant to do a DNA test in order to present such evidence.

    While I appreciate (and mostly agree with) your summary of how this case doesn't appear to establish legal precedent, I really don't understand this argument. How could it possibly be an "invasion of privacy" to look at someone else's DNA? The relative in question in this case (a second cousin) had voluntarily uploaded genetic data to a free public DNA database. What could possibly bar the police from searching said database in hope of a lead? I can understand requiring a warrant for police to be able to do a search on PRIVATE genetic records, but this stuff was on a public website.

    An analogy: distinctive handwriting patterns sometimes run in families. (I don't know how common this is, but it happens.) Suppose some people voluntarily uploaded photos of some of their own writing to the internet. Suppose one of them has a distinctive shape to some capital letter (perhaps an initial for a family name). Suppose police do some sort of Google search or an image search and find this distinctive initial. They discover a brother or parent or some other close relation to the person who wrote this and uploaded this lives in the area around a murder where a note was found. Police find some writing from that person in the trash, and it is an exact match.

    Assuming the final obtaining of the trash was legal, why would this NOT be admissible in court? How would it be a privacy violation to do an internet search looking at other people's voluntarily uploaded handwriting? (Granted, handwriting matches are more questionable than DNA, but let's set that aside; I'm just making an imperfect analogy.)

    I'm not saying I like this development, but I can see perfectly why defense wouldn't even object to this genetic evidence. As far as I can see, there's absolutely no reasonable legal basis for excluding it, other than perhaps a scientific query on the reliability and statistics of the method. But that almost doesn't matter, as the investigators ultimately collected actual DNA from a cup that fell off the suspect's truck. Honestly, I don't even see how the genetic genealogy stuff is even that relevant to the legal case for conviction, except as trivia about the police's investigative techniques (which they are usually allowed wide latitude for in coming up with a potential list of suspects).

    There are other issues brought up at the end of TFA that would be more objectionable. For example, the online DNA database in question later changed its terms of service to prohibit such blanket searching by law enforcement (except in certain situations, under certain conditions, with opt-in from submitters). If the police violated said terms of service (which again, wouldn't be relevant in this case, as there were no such terms of service when the police did their search), there could be legal questions. If the police made use of criminal DNA databases, which consist of many samples often taken without permission and definitely not intended to be shared publicly, there would definitely be serious legal issues.

    But doing a search of data on a public website, using data voluntarily uploaded by people who wanted to share it publicly? How is there possibly a legal issue with that?

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  • (Score: 2) by AthanasiusKircher on Monday July 01 2019, @04:53PM

    by AthanasiusKircher (5291) on Monday July 01 2019, @04:53PM (#862049) Journal

    And just to be clear -- as I said, I do NOT like this development. IANAL either, but I just don't see how it could reasonably be outside the current accepted bounds for legal admissibility. Perhaps a law could be passed to limit or curtail the way such evidence is used or obtained, but without a new law, the main objection I'd foresee would only be on grounds of reliability and methodology. The privacy objection seems a red herring to me when the method solely involves examining information from OTHER people.