Genetic Genealogy: On The Road to Justice

Each year, 6,000 criminal cases go cold, adding on to the 250,000 that already are. The majority of those cold cases come from a time in which technology was not equipped to access crucial information from DNA in crime scenes, up until recent years, where due to new technology advancements, a surge of cold cases can now be solved.

Genetic genealogy creates family history profiles (biological relationships between or among individuals) by using DNA test results in combination with traditional genealogical methods. According to the Library of Congress, by using genealogical DNA testing, genetic genealogy can determine the levels and types of biological relationships between or among individuals.

The genealogists who work on cold cases often match up the DNA that they are trying to identify to public databases where many peoples’ DNA is stored, such as 23andMe and Whether using genetic genealogy to identify the perpetrator of a crime or using it to identify an unknown body, justice is being served to many families who had previously lost hope. 

Many organizations have started up as a place for genealogists to volunteer their skills and time to help solve cold cases. One of the most well-known and largely successful examples of this is the DNA Doe Project, also known as the DDP. They have solved over two dozen cases. On their website, they state, “DNA Doe Project is an all-volunteer organization with over 60 experienced genetic genealogists giving their time and passion to our cause. In addition, we raise funds to cover the expensive lab costs involved in extracting and sequencing DNA from remains whenever an agency is unable to afford them.”

One of the first and most well-known cases in which genetic genealogy solved it was that of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr, otherwise known as the Golden State Killerand East Area Rapist. According to the LA Times, he worked as a police officer between 1973 and 1979, while during 1974-1986, he committed at least 13 murders, 50 rapes, and 120 burglaries across California. In 2018, after 44 years of searching for the person who committed these crimes, DeAngelo was arrested and charged. In order to get to this point, though, many steps needed to be taken to identify who he was in the first place. According to All That’s Interesting, with the advancement of technology, in January of 2018,  detectives uploaded the DNA profile from a rape kit back from the 70s onto a personal genomics website, GEDmatch. This website identified a handful of people who were distantly related to DeAngelo, and using this, detectives were able to build a large family tree of the perpetrator. From this tree, two family members became suspects, but one became ruled out due to a DNA test that did not match the one that detectives were looking for. This left DeAngelo to be the only suspect. Detectives then went to collect DNA samples from the door handle of DeAngelo’s car, as well as a tissue that was found in his curbside garbage can. It was found that the DNA was a match.

Although DeAngelo’s case is just one of many that was solved using genetic genealogy, each case, no matter how publicized, brings justice and closure to families. This new technology is becoming stronger and stronger each day, meaning that each year, more cold cases are going to be solved than were previously. With the help of those volunteering their time and resources to solving these cases, justice is finally being served.