Legal Briefs Podcast #2: Investigative Genetic Genealogy: An Opportunity to Impact Human Rights

Contributing Author: Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County District Attorney

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DNA is the greatest tool ever given to law enforcement to find the truth. With the explosion of familial genealogy services, investigative genetic genealogy (IGG) is a new scientific tool that can solve violent crimes that have DNA evidence where traditional DNA databases have not identified the offender. IGG has the ability to both identify the guilty as well as exonerate those who have long been suspected but are in fact innocent. As more and more of our personal data is available online, this new technology comes with a caveat of privacy concerns. In this field as a member of law enforcement, I want to recognize the privacy interest, but also appropriately balance those interests against public safety.

I consider investigative genetic genealogy to be revolutionary. In less than 18 months, it has demonstrated the ability to solve horrific cases that would never have been solved. As of January 2020, more than 70 cases across this country have now had arrests based upon IGG. Some of these cases have already resulted in convictions.

The alleged Golden State Killer was the first criminal case that utilized this new technique. For over 40 years, countless victims waited for justice. Hundreds of law enforcement professionals investigated this case, many of whom dedicated their entire careers to solving it. When the idea of using IGG was proposed to me, I thought “This is a new idea, can we try this?” Watching this case unfold from the initial thought of using IGG to the arrest was surreal for me. It was a moment in time that I will not forget, and I have no doubt the victims’ families won’t forget either.

In my opinion, investigative genetic genealogy is a human rights issue. IGG affords the ability not only to solve crime, but to prevent crime and to exonerate people efficiently and fairly. IGG allows law enforcement to quickly eliminate suspects and raise clouds of suspicion off those who are innocent. As someone once said to me, perhaps one day we can eliminate the word “serial” altogether from crime if we’re able to identify, arrest and prosecute more quickly. This is particularly true when it comes to sexual assault.

In the United States, over 300,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. Thousands of those victims undergo sexual assault examinations, where evidence is meticulously collected in the hopes of identifying the assailant. In the last several years, incredible strides have been made to “end the backlog” of rape kit analysis. Where traditional offender DNA databases don’t identify a suspect, law enforcement should use every tool available to solve those crimes, including IGG. By doing so, we are furthering justice in our society.

Recognizing that our society is rapidly evolving in the digital age, I feel a tremendous responsibility to ensure that law enforcement appropriately balances privacy and public safety when using IGG. We must be fair and responsible in its use. We must continue to establish and follow best practices. By doing so, we can ensure that this new revolutionary tool remains one of the greatest crime solving tools of our lifetime. With this, we can make a meaningful impact on human rights.

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