Intersection of Genealogy and Law Enforcement

Chloe Layne is currently a Graduate Assistant and student in the Law Enforcement and Justice Administration Department. She graduated the undergraduate portion of the integrated program with a major in law enforcement and justice administration and minors in Spanish and psychology.  Chloe is also an active researcher working with multiple faculty to produce peer-reviewed articles and conference presentations.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) first made its introduction into the American court system in 1986. Since then, not only has DNA aided in the conviction of a multitude of offenders, but it has also led to the exonerations of those who are innocent but were found guilty. DNA has proven other forensic sciences that were largely accepted in the courtroom as proof of identification, to be faulty. More recently, DNA has been used for another purpose within the criminal justice field. In recent cases, DNA has been used through genealogy websites to identify suspects of unsolved cases where DNA was left behind.

Genealogy websites are becoming widely popular and already have over 2.5 million users. The purpose of the websites is to analyze the DNA sent in by their users and return to them a list of origins that their family may come from and give them the names of people they are either closely or distantly related to who have also submitted their DNA to the service. Under the terms and conditions of these sites, it explains that by sending in DNA, users are agreeing to the possibility that law enforcement, when acting under the proper conditions such as a search warrant, may be allowed access to the users’ profiles and information within, including their DNA. This section of the terms is not a hypothetical situation, as law enforcement has already taken advantage of the opportunity to utilize these sites for their own agenda.

The most infamous instance of law enforcement utilizing this strategy is when they were able to apprehend a suspect known as the Golden State Killer. Suspected of over a dozen murders and 50 rapes, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested over three decades since the last known associated killing. Law enforcement used a DNA sample from one of the crime scenes and used a genealogy site to match it with a distant relative who had also used the site. Law enforcement then charted the family tree and identified a suspect in the right age range and area. They then followed this suspect (DeAngelo) until he discarded DNA samples, and they matched them with the DNA at the crime scene. DeAngelo was arrested in April of 2018. These same methods have been used to identify suspects in at least four other murder cases and one rape case thus far.