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Genetic genealogy 'leveling playing field' for solving cold cases

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Posted at 3:52 PM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-17 07:36:46-04

INDIANAPOLIS — There have been major breakthroughs recently in cold cases here in Indiana thanks to forensic genealogy.

"On her birthday or even the anniversary of her death, I sit and look at her picture and wonder what would it be if she was grown? What kind of career she would have if she had one, what she would look like? Would she be married? I'd probably have grandkids," Janet Tinsley said.

Janet Tinsley's daughter, April Tinsley, disappeared from her Fort Wayne neighborhood in 1988. Her body was found three days later. It would take much longer for Janet to find justice.

"Ten years went down the line," Janet said. "Fifteen years went down the line. More years went down, the less we believed it was ever going to be solved."

Thirty years after April was killed, CeCe Moore got involved in the case.

Moore is a forensic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs. In 2018, she tracked down April's killer, who is now serving 80 years behind bars.

"That is the first time someone identified through genetic genealogy was convicted of a violent crime," Moore said.

Genetic genealogy is a relatively new form of forensics that made headlines in 2018 when it was used to catch the notorious Golden State Killer. Users of at-home DNA tests, such as 23 & Me or Ancestry can provide their DNA to databases like GED Match. Then, public records are used to build a family tree and pinpoint the person you're looking for.

IUPUI Biology Lecturer Ryan Eller teaches DNA forensics at IUPUI.

"Before they made these tests so widely available, and also cheaply available, there was no match," Eller said. "There was no database, so the more people who use these sites, the higher probability there is of a match with someone who's a relative."

This provides access to a section of the population that wasn't previously included in DNA searches.

Before commercial tests, law enforcement agencies would run DNA through their own databases, which all feed into one overarching DNA database: the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). It is made up largely of DNA collected from convicted felons.

Research published in California Law Review in December 2020 estimates Black Americans likely have their DNA collected for CODIS at twice the rate of white Americans. Although African Americans only make up 13% of the population, they're believed to comprise a third of CODIS.

But that's not the case with databases from at-home tests. Moore said the two million DNA profiles she has access to are overwhelmingly made up of people of European descent.

"One of the best things about genetic genealogy is I feel like it levels the playing field a little bit," Moore said. "We have this reverse bias in our databases, in comparison to law enforcement databases. I think it's good that we're identifying some of the people who have stayed under the radar of law enforcement for decades."

This also means it can be difficult and expensive to use genetic genealogy to identify people of color, whether they're an unidentified victim or an at-large suspect.

Moore said it can be hard to build family trees for historically enslaved people and recent immigrants, who might not have an extensive trail of public records in the United States. But as more people enter their DNA into the databases, the easier it is for genetic genealogists to do their jobs.

But many people have concerns about sharing their genetic code, especially with law enforcement.

"I teach an ethics course. There isn't really a right or a wrong answer. There are shades of gray," Eller said. "The fact that we're thinking about it, about ways to make it more ethical, I think that should give some hope for the future. That at least we're thinking about it."

Moore only uses databases people opt into, but it's enough. For the last ten years, she's been locating biological families for adoptees and identifying unknown victims.

Four years ago, she partnered with Parabon to assist law enforcement with cold cases. Part of locating suspects is that dozens of other suspects are exonerated.

"For every arrest, it lifts the burden of suspicion from dozens, or hundreds of men who have been looked at over the years for this case," Moore said. "I'm very proud that genetic genealogy has the power to narrow it down to just a very small number of individuals very efficiently, and that means the majority of people can be ruled out from the very beginning."

Even though genetic genealogy is relatively new, Moore is looking forward to future developments, and how they can transform law enforcement investigations.

"It can help keep innocent people out of those investigations, and I hope eventually we will see fewer wrongful convictions, as well," Moore said.

As these technologies develop and the databases grow, experts believe that even more families will find answers in the future. Janet has seen firsthand how new science can change the tide of a hopeless case.

"Even if it's another five years, I always tell people, just don't give up. Keep hope," Janet said.