Sunday, March 17, 2019

Forensic Genealogy: Reporter Sarah Weinman has written a fascinating account of how forensic genealogy Is cracking decades-old cold cases in an article found on the Marshall Project web site in which she notes that forensic genealogists at Parabon NanoLabs are using DNA databases to solve cold cases faster than anyone could have imagined. But she wisely asks: "how will their techniques hold up in court?" (Exellent analysis of a very difficult subject. HL);

PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "When forensic genealogy is subjected to interrogation in a courtroom, perhaps as early as this year, how will Parabon handle it when defense attorneys put its scientific approach under the microscope, perhaps aggressively? The answer, Greytak tells me, is to to focus on the limitations of the technology, to stress that genetic genealogy is, for all intents and purposes, a presumptive test, not a confirmatory one. “Even though, sometimes, our information results in a name that we’re giving to the police, it’s still [just] an investigative lead,” she says. “That’s the way we always couch it. We are recommending that you look at this person, but we can’t say so with 100 percent certainty.” Once law enforcement receives that lead—one that Parabon cofounder Steven Armentrout tells me is “no different from an anonymous tip or from a composite sketch artist”—they still have to do the work to investigate and obtain DNA from that person of interest, as was the case with April Tinsley’s killer. “Our information helped [law enforcement] locate that person, but it’s the DNA match that’s actually used in the prosecution,” says Greytak. “We do recognize that, since our information was helping them to get there, that could be part of the court case. But the end result is to say that the DNA matched.”

STORY: "How Forensic Genealogy Is Cracking Decades-Old Cold Cases,  by Sarah Weinman (Topic Magazine)  published by Forensic Magazine.

SUB-HEADING: "Forensic genealogists at Parabon NanoLabs are using DNA databases to solve cold cases faster than anyone could have imagined. But how will their techniques hold up in court?"

GIST:  (Just a taste of a much longer article which is well worth the read. HL)..."Because all of the suspects in cold cases fully resolved by Parabon have either pled guilty or were deceased by the time they were identified, forensic genealogy has yet to be tested in a courtroom. (This past December, John D. Miller pleaded guilty to April Tinsley’s murder and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.) Once it is, the question becomes whether or not the technology will be deemed robust enough to withstand the Daubert standard, a key test for scientific techniques named for a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, which is supposed to determine whether a branch of forensic science is “generally accepted” in the scientific community. (DNA testing met the Daubert standard right away, in large part because it was a new-enough technique to have its merits and flaws scrupulously examined by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.)  ....................................

As with the initial use of DNA testing in a forensic science capacity three decades ago, more practical concerns will appear as forensic genealogy becomes better understood and more widely accepted. The technology as done by Parabon is expensive, each analysis costing upwards of $5,000. Multiply that by the number of open cases, cold or hot, and the math doesn’t work in investigators’ favor.
Parabon’s researchers focus on the limitations of the technology, to stress that genetic genealogy is a presumptive test, not a confirmatory one.
Some agencies, like the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, are working around the expense by creating their own forensic genealogy units. But most law enforcement agencies simply can’t afford to use genetic genealogy on every cold case, let alone newer ones. “Maybe someday this technology can be done by state forensic labs, but right now we’re still struggling to get analysts to do the basic DNA testing,” Karen Richards, the Allen County prosecutor who oversaw the April Tinsley case, reminds me. “Results take months and months to come in. So until we get a handle on more adequate and timely basic testing, I can’t imagine trying to add another layer of complexity.” In the meantime, there will only be more questions about the validity of forensic genealogists working with law enforcement, about ethics and privacy concerns, and about who is qualified to make those calls. In January 2019, BuzzFeed broke the news that FamilyTreeDNA, one of the oldest private at-home genetic-testing companies—and the one that first attracted CeCe Moore’s attention as a budding amateur genealogist—has been allowing FBI agents to search its genealogy database in an effort to solve violent crimes, a shift that is currently both legal and welcomed by the company. FamilyTree, established in 1999, had changed its terms of service in December 2018 to assert that law enforcement could make use of its data for homicide and rape cases, but for the more than a million people whose DNA samples became part of FamilyTree’s database in its 18 years of existence, finding out the FBI had access to their data without their permission was not what they had signed up for. As Alan Butler, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research center focusing on privacy issues, told the New York Times in February: “The company needs to either roll back the change or else delete all stored DNA data it has collected from individuals under the previous agreement.” Already, one bill to limit the use of forensic genealogy in cold cases, or ban it outright, is being considered in Maryland. More states may follow suit if public outcry grows. .........................

Forensic genealogy may still be in uncharted, unregulated territory, but as applied to crime-solving, it looks to be as paradigm-changing as DNA testing was to forensic science—like a light switch flipped on what was previously thought of as of as permanent darkness. But the technique is new enough that the serious concerns already lodged about ethics and privacy should not be ignored. We want crimes to be solved, but at what cost? Is the excitement of resolving a long-unsolved murder worth the price of ever-increasing police surveillance, or falling into entrenched racial biases, or prioritizing arrests over community, prison over rehabilitation? Thinking about these questions tempers my own excitement about genealogy’s present and future role in law enforcement. The quest to understand our ancestral roots is filled with the landmines of unintended consequences. Because, as genealogists well know, DNA is a shared experience. One DNA upload by one person curious about their ancestry leads to the arrest of a killer in a decades-old case. That DNA upload comes from a specific individual, yes, but each generational remove creates a community. It’s not just your DNA, or mine. It’s all of ours, flying out of that Pandora’s box, and we have no real idea where it may lead next.

The entire post can be read at:

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to:  Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog.