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Genealogy Sites Have Helped Identify Suspects. Now They’ve Helped Convict One

Accepted submission by chromas at 2019-07-01 08:22:56 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 35 more paragraphs at The New York Times []

Original Submission