A $470,000 grant to use new DNA technology could be the answer to solving cold cases in Prince George’s County.
The county was one of 10 in the nation to receive the three-year-long grant from the Department of Justice. The grant will allow the county to reopen cases, some going as far back as 1979, using forensic genetic genealogy — an investigative tool comparing and analyzing DNA samples from crime scenes and popular genealogy websites like 23andMe and Family Tree. The county’s State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy’s office was the recipient of the grant.
“This is a process that holds great promise for achieving justice and bringing closure for victims of cold case crimes and their loved ones,” Braveboy said in a statement. “It’s important for the community to know we never stop working to solve these cases and to hold the perpetrators accountable.”
There are currently 600 violent crime cases in the county with unmatched suspect DNA. Of those cases 120 are murders and 360 are sexual assaults. The DNA from these cases has already been entered into a national database of cases, but to no avail.
Jonathon Church, the county’s deputy state’s attorney and chief of the homicide unit, tells DCist/WAMU that the unit is trying to determine which cold cases are worth pursuing. Church says they’re basing the decision on the “solvability” of cases.
“Clearly if there are cases that have very little or any evidence still in existence or very few witnesses that are still alive those may not necessarily get the priority because the solvability factors are lower,” Church says.
Church says some of the DNA samples may not be viable for genealogical testing based on their size, quality, or how much time has passed since they were collected. “So some of those [DNA samples] may be ruled out immediately,” Church says.
The unit has already determined that they will reopen the July 1991 case of Regina Williams, who was found dead in her apartment. An autopsy found that she suffered a stab wound to her upper body and was a victim of sexual assault, but no DNA match was found.
Under the guidelines of the grant, the county can reopen homicide and sexual assault cases that are at least three years old. The new technology could be a game-changer for authorities trying to bring closure to victims and their families.
The forensic genetic genealogy, or FGG for short, provides an alternative option to law enforcement who typically uses the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for DNA samples. CODIS relies on DNA samples taken from scenes of violent crimes across the country, but may not provide any leads for law enforcement.
FGG, on the other hand, relies on a third-party laboratory using a computer algorithm to match a suspect’s DNA sample to one or more publicly available genetic genealogy services. The algorithm will then compare the sample against the genetic profiles of individuals who have voluntarily submitted their own samples to the service. The lab work costs $2,000 per sample, according to Church. Based on that cost, the county will be able to match roughly 235 samples.
The DOJ address the issue of privacy concerns and the release of personal genetic info to the public in a press release last November.
“The personal genetic information is not transferred, retrieved, downloaded, or retained by the genetic genealogy users – including law enforcement. And before FGG is an option, all other available techniques, including a search of CODIS, must be exhausted.”
Church says once the grant is up in three years, the state’s attorney’s office may try to find an alternative stream of revenue for the program.
“We’re going to use the grant to the greatest of our ability to get as many cases as possible in,” Church says. “If this turns out to be successful and helpful in solving these cases we would be looking for a different source of funding.”