In 2018 police arrested “the Golden State Killer” — now a 72-year-old man who had committed 13 murders between 1974 and 1986, the New York Times remembers:
What made the investigation possible was GEDmatch, a low-frills, online gathering place for people to upload DNA test results from popular direct-to-consumer services such as Ancestry or 23andMe, in hopes of connecting with unknown relatives. The authorities’ decision to mine the genealogical enthusiasts’ data for investigative leads was shocking at the time, and led the site to warn users. But the practice has continued, and has since been used in hundreds of cases.
But now using similar techniques, a wellness coach born in Mississippi (through a Facebook group called DNA Detectives) has helped over 200 strangers identify their unknown parents, the Times reports.
And she’s recently donated more than $100,000 to a genetics lab called Othram — to fund the sequencing of DNA to solve cold cases back in her home state. “These families have waited so long for answers,” she told the New York Times, which calls her “part of a growing cohort of amateur DNA detectives…”
[Othram] created a site called DNASolves to tell the stories of horrific crimes and tragic John and Jane Does — with catchy names like “Christmas tree lady” and “angel baby” — to encourage people to fund budget-crunched police departments, so that they can hire Othram. A competitor, Parabon NanoLabs, had created a similar site called JusticeDrive, which has raised around $30,000.
In addition to money, Othram encouraged supporters to donate their DNA, a request that some critics called unseemly, saying donors should contribute to databases easily available to all investigators. “Some people are too nervous to put their DNA in a general database,” said Mr. Mittelman, who declined to say how large his database is. “Ours is purpose-built for law enforcement.”
Another group raising money for genetic investigations are the producers of true-crime podcasts — and their listeners. According to the article, the podcast-producing company Audiochuck has donated roughly $800,000 to organizations doing investigative genealogical research (including Othram), though the majority went to a nonprofit started by the host of the “Crime Junkie” podcast. (And that nonprofit raised another $250,000, some through crowdfunding.)
“Why just listen to a murder podcast when you can help police comb through genealogical databases for the second cousins of suspected killers and their unidentified victims?” the Times asks?
So far donors around the country have given at least a million dollars to the cause. They could usher in a world where few crimes go unsolved — but only if society is willing to accept, and fund, DNA dragnets…. A group of well-off friends calling themselves the Vegas Justice League has given Othram $45,000, resulting in the solving of three murder-rape cases in Las Vegas, including those of two teenage girls killed in 1979 and in 1989…. [T]he perpetrators were dead….
Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland, expressed concern about “the public picking and choosing between cases,” saying investigative priorities could be determined by who can donate the most. Ms. Ram said the “largest share” of cases solved so far with the method “tend to involve white female victims….”
Ms. Ram is also concerned about the constitutional privacy issues raised by the searches, particularly for those people who haven’t taken DNA tests or uploaded their results to the public internet. Even if you resolve never to put your DNA on a site accessible to law enforcement authorities, you share DNA with many other people so could still be discoverable. All it takes is your sibling, aunt or even a distant cousin deciding differently.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.