Things That Need To Be Said: Victims, Murder, and Judgement


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 starving.

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

113 thoughts on “Things That Need To Be Said: Victims, Murder, and Judgement

  1. Wonderful essay, Roberta. You’ve made a complex topic easily accessible to a general readership. Great work. And thank you for your bravery in sharing the personal experience that shapes your own response to the larger question. I, too, was in tears as I read.

  2. Thank you for your levelheadedness, especially in light of your personal experience. All too often, people jump to conclusions based on assumptions & in the absence of a full picture. Complex issue with lots of grey zones.

  3. Roberta, Thank you for sharing your opinion and your personal story. I love what you said: “At this point with the data bases and technology available, it would be negligent of law enforcement NOT to utilities the tools available to identify victims and their murderers.” And I pray your nightmares will lessen and that other people’s nightmares might lessen as these rapists and murderers are identified and stopped.

  4. Roberta,

    Thank you for sharing your story, raw emotions and all. Thank you for explaining the US legal system in a concise clear way. I have often wondered when reading others opinions whether they understood our legal system but was hesitant to ask.

    I too am keeping my DNA in databases available to law enforcement and yes part of the reason is deeply personal. Another reason is because DNA is just one tool in the tool box investigators use to narrow down suspects.

  5. Thank you for you honest comments. I am sorry for your previous terrifying time and appreciate you being so honest to share it. I am happy to leave my DNA in the various databases to help catch criminals as a byproduct of my own genetic family history.

  6. In the end it is really up to each of us, the combination of all of our life experiences, to come to a position on this issue.

  7. I would like to see DNA tests made compulsory for everybody. The only people who will not benefit are those doing the wrong thing.

    • Maybe we should let police search anyone’s home at any time for any reason, we’d probably catch a lot of crime that way. Oh, wait, that’s pretty much what the Fourth Amendment is all about, right?

  8. Thank you for being the voice of reason, and for your level-headed analysis of the way emotion is influencing your beliefs. I’m sorry that you had to share something that makes you so upset in order to explain it to us. I hope law enforcement caught your child’s kidnapper (and, indeed, any kidnappers!). And thank you for representing part of the community on the citizen’s panel.

  9. I know how hard this was for you to write. I know, because I went through the same thing as a mother in the 1970s. And this is all that I am able to say about it.

    Thank you for writing this. I admire your courage.

  10. Your straightforward explanation of the facts about law enforcement use of DNA data bases was only made all the more eloquent and urgent by your brave sharing of your life-altering experience as a mother. Fortunately, many people will not have first hand experience to be able to know the agony of the type you (and my own family) experienced and the desperation for answers that it undeniably creates. Unfortunately, it often takes your type of courage to be willing to relive and share painful details so that understanding and empathy can be created and then built upon to foster communication and find constructive solutions. Thank you.

    I strongly support that the services give options for individuals to choose for themselves what they want to do with their own DNA data. I also share your concern about the potential for mis-guided regulation that may inadvertently take away or limit informed consumer choice or have other unintended consequences that end up hampering the use of a valuable resource that has helped many, many seekers find positive, life-affirming answers.

    Finally, I think there’s another, also constructive and positive, use of GedMatch’s “research” opt-out choice. As you explained, if you opt out of law-enforcement matching by selecting the “research” option, you can see matches to the kit, but other people can’t see you. This option is useful in searching discretely for unknown relatives in order to possibly confirm traditional genealogical research results and to avoid potentially inaccurate, false, or premature approaches that could be unnecessarily disruptive or hurtful for all involved.

    • I agree.
      “Finally, I think there’s another, also constructive and positive, use of GedMatch’s “research” opt-out choice. As you explained, if you opt out of law-enforcement matching by selecting the “research” option, you can see matches to the kit, but other people can’t see you. This option is useful in searching discretely for unknown relatives in order to possibly confirm traditional genealogical research results and to avoid potentially inaccurate, false, or premature approaches that could be unnecessarily disruptive or hurtful for all involved.”

  11. Thank you Roberta for your candid and heartfelt analysis. When I saw your name as a member of the Citizen’s Panel for FtDNA, I was quite pleased, along with some of the other names I know. Thank you!

  12. Roberta Estes:

    Any article you write is easy to understand and very instructive. Thanks for taking your time to explain the processes occurring in US courts to compliment your main topic. It was like flying with you to great altitude and see the whole scenario from your perspective. I lament the incident with your son and I understand that the heart of a mother like you carries that trauma because only mothers’ feelings are in that way.

    Soon, when the earth becomes a beautiful paradise without wicked people you will experience what Isaiah Prophesied:

    Isaiah 65:17 – “For look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth; And the former things will not be called to mind, Nor will they come up into the heart.”

    Please read chapter 11 from the e-book attached to the link below, The topic, Why so much suffering?



    • I normally don’t allow links I don’t recognize to post through, but this one looks to be fine. Thank you for your kind thoughts.

  13. Roberta, really appreciate your well written post. I can’t imagine the anguish you experienced.

    Wondering if anyone has articulated why they oppose use of the databases. I’ve heard views like “this wasn’t the original / intended purpose” and that use could arouse opposition that resulted in legal restrictions which would impair finding biologic parents and/or use by genealogists in general. Are there others?

  14. Thank you for presenting a personal, rational discussion about the use of DNA in violent crimes. I wholeheartedly agree with you. To those who worry about the “government” having access to their DNA, my question is “why? Did you do something that would make them want to hunt you down based on your DNA?” Personally, I think that the good and happiness that comes out of your DNA far exceeds the damage done by it being available to others. For those hurt by it (unknown parent, siblings, etc.) I can only say “I’m sorry you were hurt, but YOU didn’t cause the pain…. someone else did.”

    • It’s naive to think that the government can’t eventually use DNA data for uses that breach the human right to privacy. We are moving more and more towards a surveillance society, and we regularly reveal far too much of ourselves on the Internet. That data is used for marketing purposes. If you look at how this type of information is used in China, you can see how all kinds of personal information can be used in ways that promote inequality and exploitation of the weak.

      This being said, so many DNA test users upload their results to such database, which is more or less in the public domain, that it doesn’t quite make sense to forbid law enforcement to use it for their purposes.

      As for the issue of revealing the wrong deeds committed by our relatives and dealing with it emotionally, I can see why it’s touchy. One of my ancestors is a wall because both of his parents are unknown. It is known that he is illegitimate, but the cover-up hints at rape rather than a youthful indiscretion. Even though this happened in the middle of the 1800s, many descendants would still rather let it go and remain a mystery. Yes, my x-time great grandfather was probably a rapist. It might be possible to identify his surname with an analysis of the Y chromosome. We probably couldn’t identify the individual with certainty, just the family, and thereby the original immigrant ancestor. Would it be worth the trouble and the shame brought onto the guilty family?

      I am going to let sleeping dogs lie, but one day, a descendant might want to get it done, and there is probably no way to stop it from happening. It’s a question of when, not if.

      • I would not worry too much if one has a criminal ancestor, we do not have to excuse the behaviour of adults who should know better how to behave ! Of course if you are an Australian you would be treated as ‘royalty’ with that heritage. Lucky them!

        • He, he! Convicts are colonial founders… Perhaps not the gateway ancestor kind, but still worthy of note! That approach to family history doesn’t resonate in quite the same way in French Canada. We’ve been staunch Catholics living in a very conservative society up to the sexual revolution. Even today, Canadians define themselves by their love of law and order. That’s one of the things that make us different from Americans. I think that Loyalists and French Canadians probably got along pretty well from the beginning…

          The shame of sex before marriage could possibly have been enough to hide even the mother’s name from the records, but we know through oral tradition that her identity was hidden even from the next generation, only known by her contemporaries. The family went to great lengths to hide where this kid came from, then and forever… He’s probably related to his “adoptive” father OR mother. That doesn’t narrow things down much, considering that the mother could have been a cousin of either, and we had big families with lots of possible branches. I can’t even imagine how you’re supposed to count all the statistical possibilities.

          And it’s too long ago to detect anything else than traces through a DNA test, which probably makes the Y chromosome the only workable DNA lead.

  15. Does it mean they already have additional evidence, besides the suspect’s DNA, to get a subpoena for requesting that a search be done by FTDNA for matches in their database? I’m for it. Don’t get me wrong. Just wondering if the have more evidence. I other relatives lived in worked in Sacramento when the GSK rapist was on the prowl. He was know there as the North Sacramento Area rapist. Tickled pink that he was caught.

    • In order to upload a regular DNA kit, meaning a kit created from a forensic sample, they don’t need a subpoena. If they want anything MORE than the information a regular kit receives from their matches, then they have to obtain a subpoena for anything not available to a regular customer.

      Regarding the police and additional evidence. It’s my understanding that in the GSK case, the forensic match in the data base only pointed them investigators in the direction of who might be a suspect. They obtained a Kleenex from the person’s trash. That Kleenex was processed in the FBI lab and the results compared to the traditional CODIS data base which was an exact match. They then arrested the suspect and the court subsequently order a DNA test from him directly, which also matches the CODIS test and the Kleenex. At that point he was charged with murder. The actual forensic match at GedMatch was used for nothing more than to identify a suspect to investigate.

  16. I’m with you, Roberta. As a younger nurse, I cared for a 12 year old female rape victim. While she was being raped, another grown man held her younger brother and kept him from getting help for his sister. The rapist was acquitted by a jury. The rapist’s minister served on the jury that acquitted him. The youngest rape victim, I’ve taken care of was a 5 year old raped by her brother-in-law. The little girls father, a minister, forgave his son-in-law. I could never be that forgiving, but that’s my problem to cope with. I am all in favor of using DNA to catch pedophiles and other criminals. DNA can help to insure that the guilty person was caught. Please continue giving us valuable information like this.

  17. Like Nicole , Thank You very much for your educating us to the facts of how DNA is being used by the legal systems and potential issues from that . My family’s DNA stays in the system .

  18. Roberta, Thanks for sharing your story and starting this conversation on this blog.
    I want to talk about judgement in regards to the actions of others and in particular
    our ancestors. Being able to suspend judgement is not my strong suit when it
    comes to the actions of some of my ancestors. I regularly remind myself, that all we
    know of any piece of historical life, are the bones (if we are that lucky). We were
    not present for situations that predate ourselves. The stories that we learn or are
    told are filtered through the judgement of others. I would suggest that horrible
    actions are never isolated without underlying explanations. I am not trying to be
    provocative, but rather to continue finding a way to forgive the racist behaviors of one of my triple great grandfathers that split up his family and had long term negative consequences. One newspaper article opened the door to understanding family shame, but also to knowing why honor was so important to his son and grandson.

  19. Thank you for sharing that Roberta. When this debate first started, I thought long and hard about keeping my DNA on GEDmatch. I have a DNA 1st cousin we didn’t know about, who I have never met. I have tried to contact him but he apparently doesn’t want to know us. I had to decide if I had the right to put what amounted to his DNA in a public place. I ultimately decided if he or his children had committed a crime, I wasn’t going to protect them.

    One thing to keep in mind, DNA is a lot more accurate than fingerprints, and law enforcement uses fingerprints all the time.

  20. Thank you for the posting. I am in Australia and had no idea of the extent of the US legal system aside from the TV shows like Law & Order etc. Your comments and statements are well reasoned and informative. I like your disclosure statements at the bottom so we know exactly where we stand, by reading the article, that you are not profiting from anything.

    I am saddened to hear of your personal experience and my heart goes out to you and the many others that have experienced such horror.

    My view is that ANY technology can be abused, it appears to be the nature of the world today. How DNA in the future will be viewed & used will be anyone’s guess. At present I can only think of its uses today and, with what you have said, with the way you have said it – makes me think differently about it than before.

    I am not from the US, but I will have no problem adding my DNA to a database to assist in any investigative process. I hope it would help find closure for hurting families. That is my choice.

    Once again, thank you for your articles and information.

    You have changed one person today.

  21. I have not problem with my DNA being used to help find a miscreant. That said, I am trying to understand why Family Tree DNA pulled the plug on Y-Search and Mitosearch while at the same time being willing to share my DNA with law enforcement agencies. .

  22. Roberta, thank you so much for posting such an eloquent piece. This is something I feel strongly about, for personal reasons that are not really relevant. Sometimes I have to make my way out of discussing the subject in social media groups, because I feel so strongly and emotionally about it. Too often, all the conversations revolve around suspect cases and I feel like a lone voice putting the perspective across from the victim standpoint. When I see a case where a name has been given to victim I feel like something has been given back to that victim, and very often it also feels like ‘there but by the grace of god’ that that victim was not me or one of my loved ones. And personally, I do feel I owe it to the thousands of unnamed victims out there to make my DNA available to potentially give a name back to someone, maybe let their family know what happened to them, and maybe even identify a murderer or perpetrator of a serious assault. And I agree 100% that it would be irresponsible for law enforcement to not use this technology to help them. Where it’s a criminal case, sure, it should only ever be one piece of evidence and they still need to build their case, but to not use it where they can would be doing the victims a disservice.

    Finally, I am so sorry for what you went through, I cannot even imagine. Someone close to me ran away when I was younger, and as an adult I understand the horror my parents were put through, and what could have happened. and I am so so glad that someone with your perspective is on the FamilyTreeDNA citizens panel!

  23. I love reading your posts. Very well written.
    I also wish things had been done differently. I would have wanted to know that the database would be used for more than family history/genetics prior to placing over a dozen kits out there for searching. I wish law enforcement would have created a voluntary database that you could submit your DNA *for free* to help with their cold cases. Instead…we have paid for law enforcement to have that access. I well understand why they want access. But our DNA is the only thing that is uniquely our own. And we shouldn’t have to give it up without consent *up front*…even if you opt out (I prefer opting in like the EU)…there is no way to know that your DNA will still be in the mix or not. It’s a factor of trust. The companies have lost that for not being up front. I’ve decided to leave all my kits in the database, weighing in the pros and cons, but in back of my mind I have a nagging doubt. What will be the next allowed access and by whom? What other entities?

  24. Dear Madam. I am a citizen and family DNA genealogist searching ever since the 1970s here in the UK. I neither agree or disagree with your decision to monitor the release of family data to third parties without the source prior agreement! My feelings on this subject is that the relevant Law Enforcement organisations should finance and operate their own research and have their own control over it in whatever country that they wish to operate. As it stands I do not understand how by selling data to third parties equates with the provisions of GDPR that restricts release of data to the public domain no matter how carefully reputable organisations could guarantee any protection of data? The biggest danger of leakage to others is if the disreputable media organisations acquire sensitive data to carry out ‘investigative journalism’ that intrudes on an individual’s privacy! This ends up as a ‘witch hunt’ before anyone gets ‘charged of a crime’ and is a form of ‘deformation of character’ and perhaps ‘suspension of ability to continue in their livelihood’. A typical example of this is the case of damages cited by Sir Cliff Richard here in UK where many of our citizens are most suspicious of police retaining data of ‘suspects never charged for a crime’. I must say that I am no lover of GDPR forced on us by the unelected EU commission as it limits greatly our legitimate family research!

    • Just to be, nothing was sold to anyone. Law enforcement uploads a kit like anyone else. Nothing was released into the public domain. Nothing was released to anyone. The media has no access to anything unless they personally buy a kit like everyone else.

      • Roberta. That is the whole point. Where money is involved they have access to data that may be past on by the ‘un-scruples’. The words being in your reply are ‘unless they personally buy a kit like everyone else’. Therefore on a commercial database data cannot be made 100% secure!

        • If they buy a kit, they have matches like you do. How can they do investigative journalism from that? The whole point of testing and genetic genealogy is to get matches.

          • Roberta. Yes they can but their motives for getting data are not the same as us genealogists that the commercial company was originally set up for. Also, we do not have control as we have seen to get ‘more business/profit’ all they have to do is change their ‘Terms of Business’ without any consultation and we, to continue with our projects, have to accept or be ‘locked out’ because in this digital world we have no ‘ownership’ and must accept ‘under licence’ the terms of which are time terminal and can change without consultation. Its the ‘wild west’ concept so much for GDPR!

        • I appreciate your comprehensive post, and that you were so forthcoming about your personal experience. I still don’t “get” the argument that Law enforcement is uploading a kit “like anyone else;” law enforcement is uploading someone’s DNA without that person’s consent and for a purpose far removed from genealogical pursuits. To my mind that is not quite the same thing.

          • The kit they are uploading is from the body of a dead victim or from semen or blood from the perpetrator of the crime meaning the person who taped or killed them. By law, they have authority over both of those items to solve the crime. So they have consent legally. Those are the only kits getting uploaded.

          • Roberta. Thank you for pointing out that the uploads are from those that are ‘non-living’. That makes the case somewhat different. However, I would still point out, even though dead, if a mistake is made after death it compromises a dead person’s character with no recourse to challenge Also, it does not enhance living relatives who for example had to remove the ‘headstone of Jimmy Saville’ – dead before charged! Mud sticks especially where the law is concerned!

          • The victims are dead in the case of murder. In the case of rape, for example, the semen deposited in the vagina of the victim, extracted with a rape kit at the hospital afterwards, is what is tested in order to identify the rapist. The rapist may or may not be alive at the time the kit is processed. The Golden State Killer is such a case where he serially raped and murdered for years back in the 1980s.

  25. Thank you for laying this subject out in such a well thought out; non-biased and unemotional manner. Thank you for sharing your personal trauma story which I hope will enable others to reach a place of empathy where they can understand another’s position. As you pointed out, understanding doesn’t always equal changing your position.

  26. Family Tree DNA eliminated Ysearch and mitosearch because of the GDPR, the European Data Protection Regulation. Meanwhile our DNA is being shared with law enforcement officials. There are all sorts of ideological implications here. .

  27. Roberta

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am saddened by your personal story and like you, if I were in that situation, I would want everything done to find my child. I agree entirely that it is “negligent of law enforcement NOT to utilize the available tools to identify victims and their murderers”. I find to hard comprehend why there is such a large backlog of untested sexual assault kits and why so many convicted offenders have not yet had their DNA tested. If this testing had been done in a timely manner so many crimes would have been prevented and there would be very little need for the use of genetic genealogy databases.

    I imagine that the law enforcement process works similarly in most countries around the world. No one should be relying on DNA evidence alone to convict someone and I’m surprised that anyone could possibly think that DNA evidence on its own would ever be used.

    However, the laws on the treatment of mothers who abandon their babies vary from one jurisdiction to another. Many jurisdictions recognise that there are always mitigating circumstance when a mother kills a child and the crime is treated as infanticide not murder. This allows for the compassionate treatment of the woman in such a situation. In the UK, women who are convicted of infanticide are generally put on probation or supervision or admitted to hospital for psychiatric treatment rather than being treated as cold-blooded murderers and potentially being given a prison sentence. In a more recent long-standing infanticide cold case in the UK that was solved by DNA, the woman was initially arrested and then released without charge so the case never even made it to court.

    In the South Dakota baby case it will seemingly now be up to the courts to decide whether the mother “intentionally” abandoned the baby to freeze in a ditch. We should not be passing judgement on the case prematurely and without knowledge of all the facts. Postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression can sometimes cause women to do terrible things to their children. These women deserve compassion and proper medical treatment not punishment.

    • The courts will decide what that mother deserves. The child deserved to be identified and the mother deserves to be tried for murdering her child with all the evidence submitted for consideration. That she went on to marry the father and have more children with him needs to be taken into consideration too.

          • You are pre-judging the outcome of the trial. It is up to the judge and jury to decide what has taken place. In many jurisdictions the woman would never even be charged with murder.

          • No, I’m saying the baby is dead because the mother put it in a ditch to die. What crime she is convicted of and the punishment if any is the only question left. Intentionally killing another human is murder.

          • Perhaps some definitions are needed.

            Technically a homicide was committed.

            Murder is a legal term with a specific meaning. “The crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.” Source Merriam Webster. Murder is determined by the courts.

            Homicide: “All killings of humans are included in the homicide definition.” Source Findlaw

            Murder has various degrees. First degree murder is the most serious. Source Findlaw

            Manslaughter: Falls short of murder. Source Findlaw There are two types of manslaughter voluntary and involuntary.

            Legal Homicide: Self defense falls into this category.

            “Infanticide (or infant homicide) is the intentional killing of infants.” Source Wikipedia.

            Legal definition: “Infanticide refers to the act of killing of a newborn child. In criminal law, infanticide is not considered a separate and distinct offense, except where made so by statute, but is merely descriptive of a homicide, the subject of which is a newborn child.” Source.

          • Thanks for the explanation of US practice. It’s interesting to see how legal systems operate in different countries and how attitudes can vary so much from one country to another. There is is a lot to think about if we are to give informed consent to share our data with US law enforcement agencies, especially if we are not in the US and are not familiar with how such cases are handled. In the UK infanticide is a separate offence. Here is a link to the UK legislation:

        • The legal definitions will vary from one jurisdiction to another. In many jurisdictions infanticide is a separate offence but there is no separate offence in the US. Whatever the case may be, it is up to the courts to decide what offence, if any, has been committed. The woman has been charged with both murder and manslaughter.

          • The legal definitions in the US do not change from one jurisdiction to another.

            What does change is the sentencing of a particular type of homicide. For example, in some states, first-degree murder is punishable by a death sentence in others it is not.

            It is common practice in the US to charge someone with several types of homicide. The reason for this is to allow the jury to determine which level the homicide rises to.

    • Wow! As a 75-year old grandmother, do I have an opinion as my heart races!

      A woman having a baby out of wedlock – I have no judgement.

      A woman leaving a baby at a church, fire or police station, etc, I have no judgement.

      A woman leaving a baby to die in the snow, when she had other safe choices, that was deliberate pre-meditated MURDER! And because she had other choices she should be held accountable.

      Not all psychotic and depressed people KILL…..babies!

  28. Thank you Roberta for your level-headed and responsible article. I too have been disturbed by some of the very vocal tirades by a few people. Most people I’ve talked to one-on-one don’t have any issues if they understand the background of DNA use for genealogy, what happened to uncover the GSK case and how DNA can be used (or not used) in our court system today. My compassion goes out to you as you grapple with your own heart-wrenching story.

  29. Bless you, my friend.

    I totally agree with you. And like you, my biggest regret is the division within the community that this has caused. Looking forward to maybe seeing you in Houston next week…???

  30. I am always impressed by your writing. As someone else mentioned, this is a very level headed assessment of the situation. Something I am rarely able to achieve. I had no uncertainty about where I fall on this issue, from the first I heard of it. I did and still do have some concerns, that have not changed my opinion. This helped me feel more comfortable with my view on this topic. Thank-you for trying to sooth things in the genetic genealogy community.

  31. Roberta, I can only imagine your experience with your child. As a parent who lost track of a young child for only a half hour once it was gut-wrenching but in your case just unimaginable how terrifying it would have been.

    I’ve been entrusted with thirteen kits at Family Tree which I administer or co-administer. A couple of these are set to completely private. When Family Tree’s new privacy policy came out I immediately opted out of law enforcement matching. From my perspective those who entrusted me to have them tested and to manage their kits did not sign on for this. It was my responsibility to opt out and then let them make the decision to have me change it.

    I wrote all my relatives and advised them what I had done and asked them to let me know if they wanted to opt in to law enforcement matching and I would change the designation. To me I felt it was prudent to immediately opt out and then let them make the decision to opt back in. So far, no one has wanted the designation changed.

  32. Roberta,
    First of all, I’m so sorry about what happened to your daughter, but very grateful it ended well. I can’t even imagine the horror of what you went through.
    I’m a retired law enforcement officer, as is my husband. Have been associated with many detectives who work these awful cases of murder, kidnap and rape. They carry it with them for the rest of their lives. Solving these cases means more to them than anyone can know, without being in their shoes.
    I’m so happy that this wonderful new tool exists to help bring justice to victim’s families. I hope it continues and that it doesn’t get legislated to death.
    God bless all the families who are still waiting for justice.

  33. The title of your blog post really says it all: “Things That Need To Be Said” Thank you for being brave enough to post such an educational and deeply personal article about a sensitive subject. I hope everyone takes the time to read this and make an informed decision about their position. I have never had any doubts myself and the people whose kits I manage also have no problem with remaining in databases.

  34. Thank you for your thoughtful writing on a subject that is both important and one that presents an amazing opportunity for those of us who have lost loved ones to unsolved violent crime. Bill Thomas, Brother of Cathleen Thomas, Colonial Parkway Murders

  35. Thank you for this. I cannot begin to wrap my mind around how difficult it must have been for you. How difficult it must still be. During the last several months you have been literally thrown into an almost unbelievable position–your unique blend of education and experience, and your knowledge of genetic genealogy and ability to write about it places you in guru status (I’m not kidding)…. But you have allowed your readers a glimpse into your heart. And mind. On a subject that has a lot of folks worried, and many others arguing. Whether your readers agree with your position or not, what you’ve written here makes sense. Thank you again.

  36. I spoke about my own child sexual abuse over 35 years ago. At that time the statistics were that 1 of 4 people had been sexually abused. Look around you and think about that. I honor your decisions and statements and my dna will stay available to LE, also. It is truly a persona choice and we DO have options.

  37. Sorry to hear you having to do through your experience. However, the article is extremely well done and should apply to politics too. Listen to the various views and stay away from demonizing folks — you don’t have a clue where they are coming from. Thanks for the article.

  38. Roberta, thanks for bringing this up again.

    I’ve made my opinion on the use of public DNA databases for law enforcement known here, and I seem to be in the minority against it, because of the chilling effect it has on getting people to test. As an adopted person, it might be that “magic match” that mentions doing a DNA test casually to an associate, who then points that potential tester to all kinds of articles about how police are going to tie you to a murder, etc.

    You’re right, the toothpaste is out of the tube on this one, but some transparency is still needed. FTDNA has a lovely set of pages explaining their cooperation with law enforcement, but there is still something I want to know. How are kits from crime scenes “named” in the DNA database? Are they openly called something that indicates that law enforcement is involved, or is a fake name used?

    I ask people all the time for information on their family trees. How can I assure them that I’m someone faking something in order to put away their cousin? The same is true of GEDmatch, Also, what steps are the other DNA services taking to assure themselves that they are not being secretly used, either by law enforcement or private individuals for nefarious purposes?

    • Some of the most nefarious aspects of those databases has to do with medical screening or research. The term “private corporation” would be more relevant than “private individual.”

      I think that many people who upload their DNA to such a database have absolutely no clue that this could constitute a privacy issue, at some point. Like you said, the toothpaste is out of the tube.

      Your point as an adoptee is a good one. I think that those who object are those who would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, whether it’s about a relative’s sexual indiscretions or a criminal past. Privacy is a human right, so there’s nothing silly about guarding it, for whatever reason.The way people deal with problems emotionally or engage with their social circle

  39. Thank you for this Roberta. You put into perfect words what I could never articulate in the debate. And thank you for sharing your very personal story. I also have one but am not able to share it as you have done. Life changing experiences such as yours define our perspective. The worst most excruciating pain a victim has is to know that the perpetrator is out there plotting to come back and finish the job or worse, living in freedom anonymously and continuing to hurt never to be caught. The forever “unknowing” is a thousand times worse than the crime.

  40. Well written cousin (though distant), I am both sorry and glad for your child. While I staunchly believe in the principal of the Presumption of Innocence, I abhor what we do to each other. I am sure that some sort of debate occurred when it was determined that fingerprints were individual in nature. The real truth is we judge on “Means, Motive, & Opportunity” and DNA just points us in a direction, as does other evidentiary findings.I have served on more than one jury, and that is not an easy position. I recently had a conversation with another cousin of ours, who is in Law Enforcement, and we were discussing how many children go “Missing” from Disney World on a daily basis, the number is over 200. Law enforcement should use every tool available to them, but as you pointed out the DNA backlog testing is in the “MILLIONS”

  41. Using DNA to prove those innocent who have been falsely convicted is an important part of this discussion, as you mentioned. But somehow, this positive end result is so often ignored. From what I can glean from the internet, there have been 20 death row convictions since 1989 overturned. Our justice system is good but it isn’t perfect. So if we can add more science to make it better, I’m all for it. Thanks Roberta for having the thoughtful strength to address this very important topic.

  42. I think one thing which has not been emphasized here is that anyone can OPT OUT of law enforcement matching and this will not affect their other matching abilities in anyway. It seems this has not been clarified.

    Also, from the way I am reading the privacy policy concerning law enforcement kits is that these law enforcement kits have to be designated as those kind of kits to Family Tree. Is this not correct? See Section 5 E in Family Trees Privacy Statement.

    Even though as much as 90% of people agree with DNA being used to identify victims and perpetrators it would be relevant to hear the views and opinions of the 10% who don’t agree.

    • Yes, that’s correct. Some of the people who don’t agree feel that genealogy was never meant for this type of usage. Using the same argument though, it also wasn’t “meant” to find adoptees parents, so that knife cuts both ways. It’s also the exact same search technique. Finding some biological parents has destroyed lives and no lives have been destroyed by identifying victims, rapists and murderers, except for the rapists and murderers who will now have to be held accountable for their crimes. Some people feel that everyone should be opted out and then only the ones that want should opt in. But in the US, lots of things at various companies use the “opt-out” methodology. GedMatch does not use the “opt-out” methodology and they are not being pressured in the same way. Lastly, some people object to the company changing their terms and conditions without notification, but again, the other companies do that as a matter of course and no one says a word. I also find it ironic that when both 23andMe and Ancestry began showing the location of where the testers LIVED, without notice and without any opt-in, the voices were dead silent. To me, that’s FAR, FAR more of a privacy breach that allowing my DNA to be used in a data base that includes law enforcement kits of dead victims, rapists and murderers.

      • Roberta, I have to disagree with you somewhat about a child looking for a parent or siblings being the same thing as an agency using someone else’s DNA to find someone’s identity whether victim or perpetrator. One is looking for a dear relative. The other is looking for connections which don’t have anything to do with a cousin or relative for personal reasons. Family Tree was set up to make connections with relatives/ancestors not for law enforcement reasons. The very least Family Tree could do to be transparent would to be to make law enforcement matching ‘opt out’ the default not the other way around. The way it is now it’s as if Family Tree is siding with law enforcement using their data base for their purposes.

        • Hi Teresa. Adoption and unknown parent searches have resulted in murder. Probably half result in very damaged families. We see the heart-moving cases publicly, not the rest. The bottom line is that our DNA matches us to relatives, regardless of the underlying purpose.

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