Detectives turn to genetic genealogy to solve cold cases, debate over the privacy of your DNA

Detectives turn to genetic genealogy to solve cold cases, debate over the privacy of your DNA

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Detectives with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office are turning to genetic genealogy for new leads in cold case investigations.

They are hoping the very same information you submit to ancestry databases to learn more about your family tree can help them identify those involved in some of the county’s oldest unsolved cases.

“Cold cases, unresolved murder investigations or sexual assaults, those will remain open forever unless there’s some resolution,” Beaufort County Sheriff’s Maj. Bob Bromage said. “Chances of solving that case diminish over time so with this technology the new ancestry databases being accessible to law enforcement we’re going to take advantage of that there’s no doubt about that.”

Companies like Parabon are the mediators between law enforcement and ancestry databases like GED Match.

Like pieces of a puzzle, the company uses genetic matches and public records to construct a family tree and identify the missing piece investigators have been searching for.

“So, if someone shares a lot of DNA that means they’re related, and when we are talking about related, these are typically very distant relatives,” Dr. Ellen Greytak said. “So, we are excited, very excited to see a second cousin. But most of the time we are seeing people at sort of the third cousin level, so we are very distant. These are people in GEDmatch, almost certainly do not know this suspect personally, but their DNA ties them together.”

The science behind this approach made national headlines last year when it helped identify the Golden State Killer, a man tied to dozens of rapes and murders in the 70s and 80s.

In Beaufort County, detectives are hoping this burgeoning technique can possibly be used to help identify a woman found strangled to death and raped, her body dumped in a drainage ditch almost 25 years ago.

“We owe it to the victim. We owe it to the families to not give up on these cases, to be able to offer them some measure of closure,” Bromage said. “It is our responsibility.”

Parabon charges law enforcement $5,000 to submit DNA, analyze the results, and build out a family tree for any matches. However, the work doesn’t end there. Law enforcement agencies then must match the DNA sample directly to the possible suspect identified through Parabon’s work.

“If you’ve got nowhere else to go in a case, it pays,” Bromage said.

However, some argue the price is charged to your privacy.

“The question is whether I, as the consumer, someone who submitted a DNA sample to one of these companies, whether I have what’s called a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information,” University of South Carolina associate professor of law Seth Stoughton said.

Ancestry databases like GEDmatch have already taken steps to address this concern by asking consumers to give explicit permission for law enforcement access. Meanwhile, other companies, like 23 and Me, don’t with law enforcement unless they are compelled to do so.

These actions aren’t to protect your privacy, but rather the company’s interests.

“I don’t think people realize how much we have given to private companies. Not just in the sheer amount of data we are sharing with private companies but also the way we have delegated to private companies whether or not we have privacy from government inquiry,” Stoughton said.

This debate over the privacy of your genetic information is a new frontier the courts have yet to address.

“Right now, it’s kind of an open question,” Stoughton said.

Until there is a definite answer, Bromage said he’s going to see if this resource can be used to close some of his county’s oldest cases.

“People like to use the word closer, but there is some measure of closure for a family to know this case has been resolved and not forgotten,” Bromage said.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is currently waiting on results from Parabon for another murder from the 1980s.

Copyright 2019 WCSC. All rights reserved.