Saturday, May 8, 2021

Forensic Genealogy: (Part One): Steven Downs: Alaska: New York Times (Reporter Virginia Hughes) illustrates how forensic genealogy has grown into a popular tool for warming up 'cold' cases...The con? Critics worry that the widening use of this investigational method could lead to what is essentially a national DNA database for law enforcement, giving police access to highly personal information from a wide swath of the public without their explicit consent. The only significant limit is the cost — typically several thousand dollars per case — and that is dropping rapidly, as demand surges." The pro? Counties that are more than happy to pay "when every other method has failed."

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  "Astrea Forensics, in California, began as part of an academic paleogenetics lab, and Othram, in Texas, has worked on hundreds of cases and raised more than $10 million in venture capital. “It really has exploded,” Dr. Press said. “Everyone and their grandmother is now setting up shop.”


PUBLISHER'S NOTE: A word of caution: It is tempting to think of 'forensic genealogy as a 'magic pill' which will lead to a conviction in every case - even dusty cold cases. Tomorrow: Part two:  The decades old Sophie Sergie murder case. An arrest has been made. Steven Downs  is expected to strenuously contest the charge - and the DNA evidence  prosecutors are planning  to use to convict him - when the trial finally gets underway. Should be very interesting! HL.

Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog. 

PHOTO CAPTION: "Heidi Cobleigh, and Scott McCord, coroners in Newton County, Ind., turned to forensic genealogy to identify three murder victims when every other method had failed."

STORY: "To solve 3 cold cases, this small county got a DNA crash course," by Virginia Hughes, published by The New York Times on May 3, 2021.


GIST: "In October of 2016, the remains of three murder victims, dead for three decades, were laid to rest in Newton County, a rural corner of Indiana.

GIST: (This is a very comprehensive article - that can't be easily reduced. Here is a bit of a taste. I hope you can access it at the New York Times site. Excellent, informant read. HL.) "Two weeks later, police officers in California arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer who had murdered 13 people and raped dozens in the 1970s and 80s. The technique employed was again the same, except this time the genetic sample came from the unknown culprit — a trace of semen left at a crime scene — not from a victim’s remains. That case made headlines for weeks, and “the floodgates opened,” Dr. Press said. Investigators across the country were eager to try the technique on their own cold cases, and an industry sprang up to help. Parabon NanoLabs, a forensics company based in Reston, Va., was an early pioneer, and has since worked on more than 550 cases for law enforcement. The Golden State Killer and many other cases relied upon a DNA test called a microarray, which generates a subset of key markers from a person’s DNA code, like an abridged version of a book.  But increasingly, investigators are turning to private companies for whole-genome sequencing, which reconstructs a person’s entire DNA code.  This more sensitive test is often best for old and degraded DNA, such as from skeletal remains heavily contaminated with bacteria.  HudsonAlpha Discovery, a lab in Alabama, has worked on about 1,100 forensic cases. Astrea Forensics, in California, began as part of an academic paleogenetics lab, and Othram, in Texas, has worked on hundreds of cases and raised more than $10 million in venture capital. “It really has exploded,” Dr. Press said. “Everyone and their grandmother is now setting up shop.” As a result, many cold cases have become quicker and cheaper to resolve. In the Golden State Killer case, six investigators worked full time for four months to narrow in on the culprit. Now cases are often solved in weeks or days. The DNA Doe Project, run by Dr. Press and dozens of volunteers, has taken on about 120 cases since 2017, and has fielded inquiries from another 200 or so. Many were from small sheriff’s or coroner’s offices with few resources, Dr. Press said.  They are often just as skeptical of the technique, she said, as they are of the psychics who frequently call with tips on open cases: “For many of them it’s in the same category — do I call the psychic back or the genealogist back?”


The entire story 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;


FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."

Lawyer Radha Natarajan:

Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;


FINAL, FINAL WORD: "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!

Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;