Unfortunately, the events that have unfolded during the last few months relative to using genetic genealogy data bases in order to identify murder victims and perpetrators of those murders have divided the genetic genealogy community.
Polls show that most people are in favor of this usage, some polls approaching 90% in favor. Within the community, the opinion is divided, with many of the leaders on opposite ends of the spectrum for various reasons.
I’d like to discuss this division and the inherent judgement – as rationally and as unemotionally as this topic can be.
I’m not going to list cases or examples. There have been many since the first case identified through genetic genealogy, the Golden State Killer, broke in May of 2018. At that time, the GSK case was plastered all over every news outlet, but today the announcements are less dramatic, approaching routine, often only covered in the local news. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. These cases have become normalized in the same way that discovering unknown parents or siblings has in the past couple of years. It’s a daily unremarkable occurrence now – unless it happens to you of course.
GedMatch was utilized to solve the earliest cases.
In late January, Family Tree DNA announced that they too are allowing law enforcement uploading, implementing a more restrictive approach than GedMatch wherein controlled, pre-screened and registered forensic samples can be upload after approval by law enforcement for matching and will be tracked internally by Family Tree DNA. These cases all involve violent crimes meaning unidentified victims, murder and rape. You can read their Law Enforcement FAQ here and their Law Enforcement Policy here. As opposed to early click-bait news articles, Family Tree DNA has not and never did “turn over” their data base to the FBI and neither did GedMatch. Forensic kits work the same way everyone else’s kits work – and nothing more. Please also note that this matching and identification process is the exact same process created several years ago within the community to identify unknown parents.
Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage do not support law enforcement matching.
If you don’t want your kit utilized for law enforcement matching. You can opt out of matching at GedMatch by selecting the “research” option where you can see matches to the kit, but other people can’t see you.
At Family Tree DNA, all European Union customers are now automatically opted out but can opt-in, and all non-EU customers have the option of opting out by turning off law enforcement matching if they don’t want their kits to show as a match to law enforcement kits.
I don’t think there’s a soul alive that will argue that we don’t want rapists and murderers apprehended and off the streets. We individually and as a society want them to be identified and held accountable for their crimes. In some cases, the perpetrators are living freely and don’t appear to have committed additional crimes, but still, they need to pay for what they did. Depriving another human of their life or raping them is simply not acceptable. That’s how the justice system in the US works and the job of law enforcement to find those who break the law and bring them to justice.
Another aspect of forensic DNA matching that has gone largely unmentioned is that if a person is wrongly convicted of a violent crime, and DNA evidence from the scene remains, DNA matching can also exonerate the innocent. DNA matching technology has improved dramatically in the past decades, moving from the 26 CODIS markers to the 700,000+ SNP markers utilized today for genealogy matching.
The Great Divide
However, the great divide is whether or not law enforcement should be allowed to upload forensic samples extracted from the victim or taken from other evidence at the crime scene (such as blood or semen, for example) to genetic genealogy data bases in order to identify these people – and in what circumstances.
In a recently solved case, a live-born baby abandoned intentionally to freeze to death by his mother in a ditch in 1981, in the northern US, in February, was identified which also identified the parents. This case has illuminated a huge divide in the community.
It has also surfaced something I had never really thought about, illustrating why we need to attempt to remain free from judgement, as much as possible. By this, I mean that we need to listen to the points of all parties involved, weigh what they are saying and try to understand their perspective. That doesn’t mean we need to change our minds, but we do need to see if the “opposing counsel” has points that need to be considered. Unfortunately, when it’s a topic we feel strongly about, it’s so easy to rush to judgement.
Sometimes the problem is a lack of education or understanding.
The Legal Process
It recently came to light from a discussion that someone outside the US had no comprehension of how the US law enforcement process works. In the US, there are three distinct stages:
- Investigation and gathering of evidence – This is where DNA matching is BUT ONE CLUE in the investigatory steps of whether a crime occurred and who should be charged. When the investigators are finished, they may arrest someone, book them into jail, and send the paperwork to the prosecutor who will decide what charges, if any, are to be filed against that person.
- Prosecution – From the time the charges are filed, the prosecutor’s job is to present the evidence to the court that a crime was committed along with any extenuating circumstances. The attorney for the accused person presents the evidence to favor them, such as an alibi, an insanity plea, or evidence that they are somehow mentally incapacitated.
- Courts -. While they are awaiting trial, the judge will decide if the person arrested can post bail in order to be released from jail while awaiting their trial date. Different factors are taken into consideration. Whether or not they are a flight risk and the severity of the crime rank high among the criteria. Ultimately the person is either convicted or found not guilty of the charges. If they are found not guilty, it’s all over. If they either plead guilty or are found guilty of some or all of the crimes with which they were charged, then the sentencing phase begins wherein the judge decides what punishment fits the crime and considers any extenuating circumstances. For example, when someone is found guilty but insane, they won’t serve time in prison, but will be remanded to a psychiatric facility for treatment instead. Many factors are involved with sentencing including victims’ statements, statements from the families of the victims, extenuating circumstances and any requests for leniency.
The person from outside the US thought that the DNA evidence automatically just convicted the person. Even people in the US may be reacting emotionally, without understanding the steps in the legal process designed to be as fair and equitable as possible.
This is Intensely Emotional
Over the last several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to talk individually with many community members. I’ve come to realize that these cases bring to the surface issues of rape, murder, incest, parental abandonment and child abuse (including sexual) by parents and family members that people continue to love anyway. Needless to say, this situation creates extremely conflicting emotions and resurrects long-buried pain for many.
Almost everyone I’ve talked to has their own intensely personal and oftentimes gut-wrenching reason for feeling the way they do about the situation at hand. The revelations have been as astounding as they have been heartbreaking and are a true testament to the triumph of the human spirit. People can and do survive, but not unscarred. Most people hide those scars – sometimes from everybody and sometimes forever.
When I hear their stories, I suddenly understand WHY they personally feel the way they do, even if I don’t agree. It takes the edge off of the purely academic discussion of the technicalities of why or why not these data bases should or should not be utilized.
Suffice it to say, that cow has left the barn. They are being utilized and probably were before we knew it. It’s much better to have a process in place and consumer knowledge that it’s occurring, allowing people to make their own participation decisions.
Do I wish this process had been handled a bit differently? Yes, certainly, but this is literally the frontier – the leading bleeding edge. I’m afraid that if someone hadn’t taken the bull by the horns, it would never have happened because the topic would have been debated into oblivion. There is simply no way to achieve an agreement from polar opposite yes/no positions involving topics this emotional.
I’m actually surprised that this didn’t happen sooner, because the technology has been available for years.
There are some people who stand to benefit personally from one position or the other or have an ax to grind. After eliminating anyone with obvious opportunistic motivations or bias from the mix, the rest of the people have a very valid reason for feeling the way they do. People’s feelings can’t be right or wrong – whether or not I agree with them.
We don’t need to demonize the individual to disagree. It’s OK to disagree without attacking others and still respect them as individuals and remain on speaking terms. Perhaps the understanding we gain will even deepen our appreciation for them and what they have endured. Agreement isn’t required for that to happen.
It benefits us all to row in the same direction, together. We have the same love, genetic genealogy.
My Own Perspective
I am a supporter of utilizing the tools at our disposal for identifying the victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, defined as rape and murder. I would personally be comfortable adding aggravated assault in cases such as where an 80+ year old woman was beaten nearly to death in a robbery, but that’s not my call to make.
For now, I would be happy to simply process the backlog of the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that have never been tested and identify the plethora of cold case unknown murder victims that include many children.
This is very personal to me for a variety of reasons. I’m going to share one of them with you.
Here’s where I take the deep breath.
My child was kidnapped more than 30 years ago and was missing for several weeks. Even today, just thinking about or typing this, I can feel my chest tighten, my heart rate elevate and my blood pressure rise. There are simply no adequate words.
My child was one of the lucky ones, “recovered” several weeks later in another state roughly 1000 miles away.
The word terror doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions.
There was not one minute of one day that I didn’t very clearly know that my child might never come home.
That my child might already be dead, buried in some shallow grave I would never find.
Or with animals gnawing on their tiny body.
Maybe hurt but not dead…yet.
Maybe floating bloated in some river someplace.
Or, that they might be being used in the child pornography industry or even worse, tortured in snuff movies. (If you don’t know what that is, just trust me and don’t google it.)
If you sit down for one minute, put yourself in my position and think about this as your own child, or grandchild, you will understand fully why I fully support the use of genetic genealogy databases for the identification of victims and those who victimize.
Even if I didn’t support this position, it’s a done deal now. It’s already been happening for almost a year.
In the case of the mother who abandoned the baby to die in the freezing cold – if there are extenuating circumstances that should be considered in terms of the mother’s behavior or mental condition, they will be revealed at the trial and taken into consideration.
If a rapist or murderer should receive leniency or be judged mentally incompetent in other cases, that evidence too will come before the judge. Let’s not conflate the investigation and gathering of information and evidence stage with the prosecution and sentencing after a perpetrator either pleaded guilty or was found guilty. We should NOT stop investigating and identifying victims and perpetrators because some of the people who committed these crimes might have extenuating circumstances. The evidence must stand on its own – all of it, together as a whole.
Here’s the important part. Without the genetic genealogy data bases, the victims and perpetrators of these cold cases would never be identified. My child could have been one those bodies. I will never forget. Every time a new victim is identified, I’m grateful all over again that it’s not my child but so glad for the families to finally have closure.
At the same time, as we talk to and read what our fellow genetic genealogists have to say, we must realize that while they aren’t telling you their personal story, many of which are simply far too intimate and painful to divulge, they have them just the same and those experiences inform their opinions. They may be writing or speaking from a place of great sorrow and betrayal, from a place of anger or from a place of healing – but they are speaking from an extremely personal space. All you are hearing is their opinion based on things you don’t understand.
It’s possible to empathize, and still disagree.
I can tell you with no hesitation whatsoever that if my child had not been found, I would go to the literal ends of the earth for the identification of their body AND for the conviction of their kidnapper/murderer.
Every time I read about an unidentified body, I remember those days, so seared into my memory that I can never forget.
So seared in that I still, to this day, have nightmares and wake up terrified – awake for the rest of the night.
So seared into my brain that 3+ decades later I still can’t even talk or write about this without crying. I don’t mean an escaped tear – I mean full on tears-streaming-down-my-face embarrassing ugly-crying.
Every. Single. Time.
So seared into my memory that today I still utterly despise the kidnapper with every ounce of my being.
That said, I was truly one of the lucky ones, as was my child.
I can’t offer these less fortunate families their family member back, bring their child back to life or un-rape them, but I can help to offer them closure and justice by including my DNA in both data bases. I fervently hope my DNA can help.
At this point with the technology and data bases available, it would be negligent of law enforcement NOT to utilize the available tools to identify victims and their murderers. As a society, why would be not embrace this opportunity so long as people have the opportunity not to participate if they wish?
In or Out?
My DNA absolutely stays in the databases.
I was rather shocked at first, last May when the GSK case first broke, and I didn’t know what to think, truthfully. Over the ensuing months, my position has become clear in my own mind, especially as I’ve seen the results pour forth.
My biggest regret is the division within the community that this has caused.
My fear is the knee-jerk over-regulation that may follow based on inaccurate reporting, fear and a rush to “do something.”
It’s Your Decision
As strongly as I feel about this topic, I encourage everyone to listen to the different perspectives and not stand in judgement of the people voicing those opinions. We don’t know what that walk in their moccasins looked like. It may have been and may still be torturous. We often move on, only to have the thin scab ripped off when emotional situations involving the most primal bond of nature, mothers and their entirely dependent babies, rape and murder surface.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been individually affected by these horrific crimes, meaning rape or murder – either personally or someone within their family. If you think your family is exempt, it’s probably because the victim has never divulged what happened.
When all is said and done, you’ll need to make your own personal decision about how to handle your DNA according to your life’s journey, conscience and moral compass. You can leave it in the data bases if it’s already there, transfer it in to both to support law enforcement matching, or you can opt out entirely. Make the decision that’s right for you. The good news is that with an off-on toggle switch, you can change your mind in either direction at any time.
Please note that I am a member of the Citizen’s Panel formed in late February by Family Tree DNA to provide feedback on ethics and policy questions. I provided a list of questions, concerns and suggestions to Family Tree DNA after their initial law enforcement announcement in late January and before their recent update on March 12th. The Citizen’s Panel is an entirely volunteer (uncompensated) position and I serve along with:
- Katherine Borges – Director of ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy)
- Kenyatta Berry – Professional genealogist, host of PBS’s Genealogy Road Show
- Dr. Maurice Gleeson – Genetic genealogist, speaker and organizer of the Genetic Genealogy Conference in Ireland, and FamilyTreeDNA volunteer Group Project Administrator
- Dr. Tim Janzen – Family Practice physician, long-time genealogist, genetic genealogy lecturer for Oregon’s local ISOGG group and other genetic genealogy conferences, and FamilyTreeDNA volunteer Group Project Administrator
- Amy McGuire – Lawyer and Leon Jaworski Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Baylor College of Medicine
- Bob McLaren – An early adopter of genetic genealogy and FamilyTreeDNA volunteer Group Project Administrator
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