After an Arrest in the Golden State Killer Case, Boston PD Looks at Commercial DNA Opportunities

Though some are concerned about the privacy implications of using genealogy databases to identify suspects, law enforcement officials think it could help close stalled cases.

by Jordan Graham, Boston Herald / May 7, 2018
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(TNS) — Boston police are exploring how to use public genealogy databases to identify suspects in crimes where they collected DNA but cannot find a match after the high profile arrest of the suspected “Golden State Killer.”

“The Department has noted with interest the use of such databases by law enforcement officials in California to solve the ‘Golden State Killer’ murders,” Boston police spokesman Sgt. John Boyle said in a statement. “(The Boston Police Department) is studying the scientific, technological, and legal issues surrounding such searches and will explore this and other investigative tools fully.”

Last month, investigators in California announced the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, a former cop, and said he was responsible for a series of murders and rapes across California in the 1970s and 1980s. Authorities had searched unsuccessfully for the killer for decades, but made a breakthrough when they uploaded the DNA profile of the killer to a public genealogy website and found matches with several relatives.

Boyle said BPD has never used public or commercial DNA organizations, but said the department has solved 911 cases by matching DNA found at the scene of a crime with DNA on file in either the state or federal databases.

“Boston police detectives, working with the Boston Police Department Crime Laboratory, make daily use of the FBI’s CODIS database and the Massachusetts NDIS database to try to identify criminals from the DNA that they leave behind at crime scenes,” Boyle said. “The databases are an invaluable law enforcement tool.”

Still, the department is not prepared to start uploading every unidentified DNA sample help in evidence, Boyle said. In addition to looking at how the process would work, BPD’s legal department is also working through their own questions, including whether an identification made with this strategy would be considered admissible in the courtroom.

Since the details of DeAngelo’s arrest emerged, investigators across the country have been mulling the same questions and wondering whether they may be able to use the same strategy for their own notorious cold cases.

“I’d be more surprised if they weren’t,” said Bill Bratton, the former head of the Boston, Los Angeles and New York police departments. “It’s (going to be) extraordinarily useful to law enforcement everywhere.”

Already, investigators on the “Zodiac Killer” case in the 1960s have said they plan to submit DNA samples taken from taunting letters sent to San Francisco newspapers to a genealogy website.

Authorities in the “Golden State Killer” case used GEDmatch, a public, nonprofit website where users can freely search for long-lost family members. Commercial sites, including 23andMe and Ancestry.com, have said they do not turn over DNA profile information to authorities without a warrant.

In recent years, investigators have begun using DNA samples that do not trigger a match in law enforcement databases in new ways. Last year, state and local police investigating the murder of Vanessa Marcotte in Princeton used a sample to create a DNA-aided sketch of the suspect, despite the fact there were no witnesses. A few months after the sketch was released, police arrested Angelo Colon-Ortiz.

Still, some are concerned about the potential implications of widespread DNA use by law enforcement.

“With DNA, just like with a number of other 21st century surveillance, the law has really failed to keep pace with technology,” said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty program. “The road that we’re headed down is a very dangerous one, and therefore it’s up to state legislators and Congress to think very carefully about not only under what circumstances should an investigator be able to swab someone but also the questions raised by the California case, with companies that are warehousing DNA.”

©2018 the Boston Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.