By Steve Horn, a San Diego, CA-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist. Originally published at Criminal Legal News
The use of DNA-based genealogy websites to track down the “Golden State Killer” suspect, Joseph DeAngelo, appears to have inspired police departments nationwide. It’s a move that has irked privacy advocates and criminal justice system reformers.
DeAngelo, a former police officer and alleged serial killer in the 1970s and 1980s, was arrested April 25 at his home in Sacramento County, California. He has been charged with murdering 12 people in California. He also is a suspect in dozens of rapes and over 100 burglaries.
Law enforcement officials stated they utilized the open-source family DNA website GEDmatch.com, creating a genetic profile under a fake name that helped lead them to DeAngelo.
Most criminal law experts say those who hand over their DNA to websites like GEDmatch have no expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. But whether that same legal logic applies to their extended relatives, though, will remain an open question as the Golden State Killer’s case weaves its way through the courts.
Currently, DeAngelo is being held in the Sacramento County Jail without bail. A judge may soon order law enforcement to unseal more documents pertaining to the circumstances that led to the arrest, according to oral arguments at a May 30 court hearing. Those may illuminate the techniques they used.
To assist their search, law enforcement created an account on GEDmatch, hoping to make a familial DNA match. As first reported by The Mercury News, DeAngelo was eventually identified because a distant relative created a DNA profile on GEDmatch with similarities to DeAngelo’s, and investigators used that information to build family trees.
“The case sheds light on a little known fact: Even if we’ve never spit into a test tube, some of our genetic information may be public — and accessible to law enforcement. That’s because whenever one of our relatives — even distant, distant kin — submits their DNA to a public site hoping to find far-flung relations, some of our data is shared as well,” explained The Mercury News of the broader implications of the use of the DNA website by law enforcement.
Andrea Roth, a law professor at University of California-Berkeley, told The Mercury News that even if one does not create a DNA kit profile on a website like GEDmatch, one’s relative could be unwittingly handing over a trail of information to law enforcement for criminal investigatory probes akin to what happened with the Golden State Killer suspect.
“When you put your information into a database voluntarily, and law enforcement has access to it, you may be unwittingly exposing your relatives — some you know, some you don’t know — to scrutiny by law enforcement,” said Roth. “Even though they may have done nothing wrong.”
And indeed, in the aftermath of the Golden State Killer arrest, DNA databases have been tapped into on multiple instances, with law enforcement officers paying homage to the team that tracked down DeAngelo and saying, they too, may put the technique to use for future investigations. Another arrest, too, has already been made utilizing the same techniques just weeks after that of DeAngelo.
“While the results presented on this Site are intended solely for genealogical research, we are unable to guarantee that users will not find other uses, including both current and new genealogical and non-genealogical use,” reads the website, pointing to several other potential uses, including, “Familial searching by third parties such as law enforcement agencies to identify the perpetrator of a crime.”
It is that “other uses” language that allowed law enforcement to utilize the website, under the guise of doing genealogical research. And that same language, other law enforcement agents have said, could open up future opportunities to help identify criminal suspects.
For example, Vallejo Police Department Detective Terry Poyser told The Sacramento Bee on May 2 that his department is now utilizing similar sleuthing techniques to track down the man known as the Zodiac Killer, who committed a string of murders in northern California in the late-1960s through the late-1970s. Zodiac, whose identity remains unknown to this day, killed at least five people and perhaps as many as 28 individuals. Results of that investigation could come to fruition, Poyser said, within weeks.
Beyond Zodiac, another cold case was recently solved by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state replicating the technique used in the Golden State Killer case.
In that case, GEDMatch was part of the corroborating evidence that gave law enforcement probable cause to arrest William Earl Talbott II on May 17. Talbott, now 55, has been charged with the first-degree murder of Tanya Van Cuylenborg, then 18, in 1987, and law enforcement is in the midst of investigating whether he also murdered her boyfriend, the then 20-year-old Jay Cook.
“He was never on any list law enforcement had, there was never a tip providing his name,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Scharf said at a press conference announcing the arrest, as reported by The Seattle Times. “If it hadn’t been for genetic genealogy, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
The business publication Bloomberg further reported on May 30 that Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based forensic DNA company, also has asked GEDMatch “for permission to load DNA from about 100 crime scenes” into its database, already getting about 20 genetic matches.
“We’ve been aware for a long time that this was possible, but there was a time when GEDMatch just wasn’t as large as it is,” Steve Armentrout, president of Parabon, told Bloomberg. “Now it is clear that this is going to be a very powerful tool.”
Justice Served Act
In order to obtain more money to reopen cold cases, the National District Attorneys Association, National Association of Police Organizations, as well as the Major County Sheriffs of America and Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, and other organizations have begun lobbying for passage of the Justice Served Act (H.R. 4854).
The bill—which recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives 377-1 (the lone dissenting vote being Michigan Republican and libertarian U.S. Rep. Justin Amash)—calls for millions more in congressional appropriations grant money, by amending the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act, to flow to local district attorney offices to solve cases of this nature. S.2345, the Senate companion version of the bill, already has a bipartisan battalion of 17 bipartisan co-sponsors.
“The Justice Served Act invests in the criminal justice process to transform these results into justice by providing funds for the prosecution of crimes cleared through DNA,” the National District Attorneys Association explained of its support for the bill in a one-pager it published. “The Justice Served Act of 2018 brings results to the courthouse and encourages the resolution of those cases through what is often a long and cumbersome criminal justice process.”
“We Should Be Careful”
Many have celebrated the arrests of the suspected Golden State Killer and William Earl Talbott II as case-study examples of “justice served,” to quote the namesake of the proposed congressional legislation. But the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), in a May 11 opinion piece published by The Washington Post, cautioned readers to think about the broader implications of the situation as it relates to emboldening law-enforcement crackdowns on less-serious crimes.
“People may not be so troubled by such an intrusion when it comes to a serial killer, but imagine the implications of using this technique for shoplifters or trespassers,” wrote the ACLU’s Vera Eidelman.
“The lines we draw for this case may well provide a roadmap for investigations of crimes in the future. And the techniques used here are likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what investigators will soon have the technological power to do.”
The publication Vice Motherboard put it a bit more simply in a May 2 article, advising readers against placing their DNA on genealogy websites at all.
“As we’ve seen with so many other privacy overreaches, law enforcement uses questionable tactics on serial killers, child pornographers, and terrorists and later uses them on petty criminals,” wrote Vice Motherboard reporter Jason Koebler. “I would start by suggesting that you not submit your DNA to centralized genetic databases. Open-source databases are accessible by anyone, and private ones are subject to subpoena or, possibly, hacking. In the same way that we should be careful about who we give our social security numbers or fingerprints to, we should also be careful about who we purposefully give our DNA to.”