Familial DNA Continues to Crack Cold Cases Around the Country

DNA

Following the big news last spring that the maddening case of the Golden State Killer was cracked by comparing offender DNA to a commercial DNA website, dominoes continue to fall around the country with the solving of decades-old murders.  It is likely more bitter than sweet for the families of the victims, but must surely be of some comfort to finally know who was responsible for their loved ones’ deaths.

Among the cases solved in the last few months using familial DNA and genealogical databases:

  • The kidnapping and murder of April Marie Tinsley in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1988. April, 8 years old, disappeared off the street as she walked to her friend’s house to retrieve an umbrella. Her raped and strangled body was found a few days later. Despite eye-witness to her abduction and the brazen taunts made by her killer in the years after, the case went unsolved until last month, when DNA left behind by the perpetrator was compared to a geneology database, as was done in the Golden State Killer case. The results led authorities to arrest John Miller, 58. When authorities showed up at his door and asked Miller if he knew why there were there, he did: “April Tinsley”. Miller is in custody and awaits trial.
  • The 1986 rape and murder of 12-year-old Michella Welch who disappeared while out playing with her sisters in Tacoma Washington. Tacoma police in May arrested 66 year old Gary Hartman, a registered nurse employed by the State of Washington, charging him with Michella’s murder. Familial DNA led police to collect a napkin discarded by Hartman, the DNA on which was compared to that found on the young girl’s body. It was a match.
  • The 1992 murder of school teacher Christy Mirack in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Familial DNA from a genealogy database proved the culprit to be Raymond “DJ Freez” Rowe, which was confirmed after investigators collected his discarded gum and water bottle from his gig at an elementary school dance.
  • The 1987 double murder of 20-year-old Jay Cook and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenburg in Bellingham, Washington. Charged in that case was 55-year-old William Talbott, who raped the young woman before killing both young victims.
  • The 1981 Texas murder of real estate agent Virginia Freeman. The woman’s body was found after she went to meet with a potential buyer at a rural property. The case went unsolved for 37 years, but officials say DNA points to James Otto Earhart, who was executed in 1999 for the murder of a 9-year-old girl.

There appears no end in sight for this trend of solving cold cases – a light at the end of the tunnel for families of the victims, and an oncoming train for the perpetrators.

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24 thoughts on “Familial DNA Continues to Crack Cold Cases Around the Country

  1. I’m going to go against the grain here a bit, or perhaps play devil’s advocate, in that I’m not sure how well-founded the privacy concerns people are raising here actually are. If the concern is around a government database linking your name to biometric information then that horse left the barn the day that states began issuing driver’s licenses with a photo and height/weight info.

    If someone committed a crime that was captured on a (otherwise non-problematic) surveillance camera and a suspect identified by running facial recognition against the DL database, would that raise privacy concerns?

    A more general question is, To what extent should we equate privacy with anonymity? To me the former is about what you do while the latter is about who you are. Not the same thing, but there is of course an intersection between the two when the question legitimately arises as to who performed a particular action.

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    • Back when I was in law school I interned with a circuit judge. One of the cases I observed with great interest was a cold case involving a quite brutal rape in the parking lot of a night club in the early 90s. The accused had since been arrested and convicted of other felonies, and his DNA had been collected. A cold case detective had then been able to connect him to evidence taken during that older investigation. I see this as overall a good thing, and that justice late is better than justice never.

      All that aside, and to take a swing at answering your question, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad thing in a vacuum. The concern I have is that we aren’t operating in a vacuum. Law enforcement and/or national security entities already monitor communications, collect metadata, even survey entire populations with drones, and who knows what else in secret, all in an environment of rampant overcriminalization, mass incarceration, etc. So while this alone isn’t the harbinger of the police state to come it seems like it’s another beam in the architecture of what could be. Now maybe the powers that be will operate with restraint, and eventually legislatures will catch up and place some rules that restrict rather than enable instrusive law enforcement. But that hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, I don’t think its unreasonable to wonder what all this architecture is for exactly, where it ends, and how much the 4th Amendment even means anymore if people can be tracked at all times.

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      • I think you’re correct with those concerns. We just don’t know the trigger event or the target yet… but someday someone will use the infrastructure to round-up the bad-guys.

        These cases strike me as advancing beyond what our legal framework is capable of handling; we’re a little bit unsure how to frame potential objections because the initial uses are for obvious crimes usually of the worst sort.

        My only slightly formed hunch is that our legal framework can’t support a massive uptick in small or minor crime detection a’la facial recognition and ubiquitous cameras.

        We can have massive surveillance with fewer laws or we can have the current over-legislation with lots of nooks and crannies to hide.

        I’m not sure we’re even close to navigating between the two… so even barring some sort of disastrous trigger event, I expect we’re going to see troubling outcomes… I also anticipate counter-intuitive arguments around race and privilege; the outcome of which could be lose/lose.

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        • Are you suggesting that if the actual criminals are easier to catch, then society will create and/or enforce more crimes?

          I think the benefits of this particular technology are going to be with the “who did it” variety, which are probably murder, rape and violence. Regulatory crimes don’t usually focus on connecting the person to the offense, but whether the activity engaged in was consistent with rule3(a)(ii), or falls under the section 27.9(d) exception.

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          • No, I’m suggesting the obverse… that our framework assumes a certain amount of personal privacy which informs what is criminal/illegal and what our expectations are for solving, deterring, and punishing those crimes.

            Step back from Murder-1 and does a hypothetical 95% effective enforcement of the bottom 20% of our legal infractions make our society function better or worse?

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              • The concern is that the last option will never come to pass (or modifications made will be to tighten, not relax), and the indenturing of the poor will continue apace, for an ever increasing definition of ‘poor’.

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              • In addition to what says I think you need to look at it in a more forward looking manner rather than backward looking, the way crime investigation and adjudication has traditionally been handled. By that I mean imagine a world where a combination of drone footage, biometric scanners, CCTV, mobile device tracking and recording is transmitting everything everyone does and says and everywhere they go to the authorities. On top of that there’s a DNA registry where tiny traces of hair or bodily fluids allow them to verify whenever they feel like it.

                We’re already very close to that and well beyond the territory of that old Will Smith Enemy of the State movie. How does a world like that effect a free society? Are you still comfortable criticizing the authorities knowing they’re listening in and can pluck you out of the haystack any time? Do you go to the protest or write the blog post knowing that little college indiscretion or moving violation you got away with is still within statute of limitations and the state’s attorney will bring charges with overwhelming evidence of your guilt if asked?

                Too much surveillance can render civil liberties ineffective under current jurisprudence if privacy has been effectively eliminated. Even assuming the benevolence if the people in charge it creates a world where everyone is perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now that’s the totally negative analysis and there probably would be some arguable good that could come of it. Very few violent crimes would go unsolved, responses to medical emergencies would probably improve and save lives. I’m just not sure we’d still be a free society or on balance be better off.

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    • To add on to what said, there is that looming questions of A) What is LE doing with the data[1]? B) How are they securing the data[2]? C) What safeguards are in place against false positives and are they adequate[3]?

      [1] Trolling DMV records for a date?

      [2] A fingerprint database needs to be secure, but the only value such a database has is to criminals who are acting against persons who use fingerprint data for security. A facial image database could be used to create disguises A La Mission Impossible, but again, is of limited value otherwise. However, in both those scenarios, getting the fingerprint or facial data from the target themselves is probably easier. A DNA database could potentially hold a whole hell of a lot more private, personal information that could be mined for a number of nefarious reasons.

      [3] I don’t really need to explain this one, do I?

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      • Yeah I read 1984 in high school too. For purposes of mass surveillance and tracking, the DMV database, combined with facial recognition and ubiquitous cameras, is more than sufficient for the purpose. I’m really struggling to imagine the nefarious purposes that the DNA file could be used for. Unless you’re talking about your health insurance company.

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but isn’t the DNA database they use for LE just a scan or encoding of the gel electrophoresis thingy you see on CSI? It isn’t going to tell if you have diabetes or something and even if it did, so?

        Look, I’m not calling for the establishment of such a universal database and I’m not completely dismissing your concerns, I’m just trying to put some substance to them and coming up short in regards to this particular thing.

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        • If it was the bare minimum for a match, and it was limited to investigations of violent felonies, I’d be less concerned. But I have zero trust that such a tool, if everyone was in it, would not be used as a means to creep into lesser and lesser crimes.

          Got a serial pooper on campus, let’s fire up CODIS!

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        • A lot of people are uploading their genotype file onto a public databases. I believe that the Golden State killer was tracked using GEDMatch. For law enforcement purposes, they don’t need the perp to do it, they probably just need a single second cousin, or several third or fourth cousins.

          More likely than not, law enforcement has enough information to facilitate a probable cause determination on everybody in the U.S. who has ancestors who have lived here for a few generations.

          So the real legal quirk is that whatever privacy rights you have in not disclosing your genotype can only exist if distant relatives feel the same.

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          • My concern is just that LE will find the current databases insufficient because they don’t close every cold case they have where there is viable DNA in the evidence bag; and thus the moment there is some high profile, tragic crime that the police can’t close fast enough, they’ll start pushing for everyone* to have a profile online.

            *Or at least enough of the population to be effective. Kind of like how vaccinations don’t have to be 100% because herd immunity handles the small number that can’t. This would be ‘herd suspicion’. Or something.

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