As DNA detection surges, experts predict 2020 will be a breakthrough year in using forensic genealogy to crack cold cases.
The catalyst? Public databases that are “huge game changers in sheer numbers of cases we are now routinely solving across America,” Ventura County District Attorney Gregory D. Totten tells A&E True Crime.
His office is jointly prosecuting former cop, Joseph James DeAngelo, in the “Golden State Killer” slayings with five other counties.
But civil rights advocates warn of glomming onto genetic clues from people who want to trace their ancestry, not implicate relatives.
The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, is concerned about genealogy companies sharing information with police “when there is no notice to folks who purchase these services that law enforcement would have access to this info,” spokesman Ed Yohnka tells A&E True Crime.
Totten notes “one of the big misconceptions is that when law enforcement uses a database they somehow get access to other people’s DNA. We do not.”
Genealogical databases do hold tremendous promise, says Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing for a different reason: to free wrongly convicted people. “But at the same time, there are a lot of concerns about their use—which is completely unregulated,” she says.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys are adapting to the challenges of DNA evidence. “A positive DNA match is not conclusive of guilt,” says Jules Epstein, a law professor at Temple University.
One thing is certain— there’s little cohesion when it comes to policies governing what the U.S. Department of Justice calls “forensic genetic genealogy.”
DNA is helping unfreeze cold cases
After four years searching for Allison Feldman’s killer, Scottsdale, Arizona police “were out of leads and still had a very violent offender on the loose,” Assistant Police Chief Scott Popp said in a 2018 news release.
Feldman, 31, was thriving in Arizona at her sales job and had talked of being engaged.
On February 18, 2015, her battered body was found in her apartment amid a smell of bleach the murderer used to erase evidence.
Police extracted DNA samples from the crime scene but couldn’t match it with any offenders in FBI or state databases.
In 2017, detectives asked Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) Crime Lab scientists to conduct a familial search, combing DNA records for close relatives of perpetrators.
It was a first for Arizona but “we were at a point of impasse,” Popp said in the release.
Lab workers scanning for genetic markers hit on Mark Mitcham, a convicted child molester serving time, and punted to police.
“There’s a lot of detective work after getting the result,” says DPS Crime Lab Superintendent Vince Figarelli.
Familial DNA worked in this case, but Figarelli notes it’s not a panacea for every crime and “is not an inexpensive proposition.” A test costs about $20,000, for a search that can take weeks, he says.
Shaking family trees
Solving violent crimes by forensic genetic genealogy is an evolving science as more individuals submit their DNA to public websites, such as GEDmatch.
It provides an alternate route to pursue when all other leads are exhausted and FBI or state databases of offenders turn up empty. But it’s still not widely used across the states, experts say.
Sacramento County authorities say the thread of DNA family trees led them to a serial rapist in July 2019.
Police charged Mark Jeffrey Manteuffel, a former corrections officer, with a series of vicious sexual assaults in northern California in the 1990s. In one case, he allegedly used a stun gun on a woman who was jogging; in others, he waited inside victim’s homes, prosecutors said.
DNA from the suspect preserved in rape kits from the 1990s provided leads in the case, Schubert said.
Similarly, DNA sleuthing led detectives to Joseph James DeAngelo in April 2018 almost four decades after the “Golden State Killer” murders terrorized northern California.
DeAngelo, a former police officer, is accused of shooting Brian and Katie Maggiore as the couple walked their dog in Sacramento County in 1978, and fatally battering Lyman and Charlene Smith in March 1980 in Ventura.
Manteuffel has not entered a plea and no trial date is set yet, Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office Public Information Officer Shelly Orio tells A&E True Crime.
Meanwhile, the judge in his case entered a not guilty plea for DeAngelo and a preliminary hearing is set for May 12, Orio says. No trial date is scheduled.
For Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, tracking genetic family trees not only finds the guilty but clears the innocent.
“It’s an opportunity to have a laser focus on getting to the truth quicker and prevent crime. We may get to the point where we eliminate that word ‘serial’ from violent crimes,” she says.
On paper, DNA evidence may look irrefutable.
But in practice, it “may show nothing more than contact between the accused and an item, and often that can’t be linked to a particular time,” says Epstein, who also serves as director of Advocacy Programs at Temple’s Beasley School of Law.
“DNA also may not answer whether this case a case of self-defense; or in a sexual assault trial, whether the conduct was consensual.”
In the U.S., few precedents exist for convictions based on genetic genealogy so far.
One is former disc jockey Raymond Rowe who pleaded guilty in 2019 to murdering a Pennsylvania teacher.
Rowe admitted he strangled Christy Mirack, 25, in December 1992 in her Lancaster County home as she was getting ready for school.
DNA from the murder was run through a consumer genealogy database resulting in several links to Rowe’s relatives. Detectives homed in on Rowe, and in May 2018 obtained a water bottle he drank from. The recent sample matched DNA found on Mirack’s body.
The other face of forensic genealogy is Christopher Tapp. The Idaho Falls 20-year-old, caught in the crosshairs of police interrogators, made a coerced confession that he raped and stabbed Angie Dodge, 18, in June 1996, Innocence Project officials said.
Tapp was convicted of murder in 1998. He was freed with assistance from the Innocence Project in 2017 after serving 21 years.
A DNA sample from Dodge’s body pointed to Brian Dripps, a one-time neighbor of Dodge’s who admitted guilt in 2019, exonerating Tapp.
“I’m so thankful that I’ve been given this second chance at life,” Tapp said after the judge’s decision.
Expect more success stories, pushback and possible regulation for genetic data-mining in 2020.
The Department of Justice is promising a formal forensic genealogy policy this year while civil rights advocates are pushing Congress to restrict the use of genealogical searches by police.
Totten and Schubert have created an organization to promote investigative genetic genealogy, the Institute for DNA Justice.
“It’s not a simple thing… we want to raise awareness of what it is and promote a best-practice model,” Schubert says.
Totten says, “investigative genetic genealogy is taking us to what I characterize as a new frontier in DNA.”