Prince George’s County is one of 10 jurisdictions across the country that will receive a $470,000 grant from the Justice Department to reopen cold cases using forensic genetic genealogy — a new investigative technique that draws on privately curated DNA databases from popular genealogy websites to compare with samples collected from crimes.
The funding could help investigators reopen as many as 60 cold cases over the next three years, Prince George’s prosecutors and police said at a news conference Thursday.
“This is just another area where we’re going to make a big difference in Prince George’s County,” county State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy said.
There are more than 600 cases of serious and violent crimes in the county in which DNA was collected from the scene but the sample did not generate a match in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, often referred to as CODIS.
The leads ran out, and the cases went cold.
But with this new funding, the county’s cold case task force will be able to spend thousands of dollars reprocessing those DNA samples against data from websites where users try to learn more about their family trees. Under the grant guidelines, the state’s attorney’s office and police can reopen cold cases for homicides or sexual assaults that are at least three years old. Authorities have 120 homicides and 360 crimes of sexual violence to select from, officials said at the news conference.
Bob Dean, the assistant state’s attorney embedded with the police department’s cold case unit, said the task force is already working to identify viable cases to reopen. The team, he said, is evaluating whether the DNA samples are sufficient, whether the DNA sample is significant from an evidence perspective and if witnesses to the crime are still able to testify. They are also discussing the “vulnerability of the victim,” Dean said.
“To do cold cases, particularly violent offenses that haven’t been solved, you really need a cooperative effort,” Dean said. “The challenges are immense.”
[Golden State Killer sentenced to life in prison without parole]
This new technology, authorities said, could become a breakthrough technique for prosecutors and investigators trying to bring closure to victims of assault or families of homicide victims.
Forensic genetic genealogy, sometimes shortened to FGG, can be used to find crime suspects and identify the remains of homicide victims. It’s a form of DNA tracing that relies on samples willfully submitted to genealogy websites rather than those taken from crime suspects in CODIS. Law enforcement gives its suspect DNA sample to a third-party laboratory, which runs further analysis before comparing the genetic information against publicly available genealogical website data.
That lab work costs $2,000 per DNA sample, officials said Thursday, an expense that the grant funding will help offset.
If there is a match between genetic profiles, it does not mean that police have found their suspect — but rather they may have located a relative of their suspect.
Investigators then work with the FBI to build a family tree out from that DNA match, and use traditional detective techniques to determine whether someone in that lineage could be connected to the crime.
[The unlikely crime-fighter cracking decades-old murders? A genealogist.]
A set of interim guidelines issued by the Justice Department last November addresses privacy concerns and outlines the process for the use of forensic genetic genealogy by law enforcement, including that police can only use the technique if they have exhausted other investigative avenues.
“The personal genetic information is not transferred, retrieved, downloaded, or retained by the genetic genealogy users — including law enforcement,” the DOJ said in a news release last year.
Federal officials said they would announce a final department policy on forensic genetic genealogy use in 2020 but no such policy has been released so far.
Dean said the technology is new to his team and is “taking forensic science to its limits.”
Even before the county received the federal grant, Prince George’s law enforcement officials used FGG to identify and indict someone in an unsolved homicide in Hyattsville from more than three years ago.
Perhaps most famously, forensic genetic genealogy was used in 2018 to identify and arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, the man who for decades was known in California as the Golden State Killer. DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges and was suspected in dozens of other sexual assaults, authorities said. Investigators were able to link a 40-year-old DNA sample from a crime scene to a distant relative of DeAngelo’s using DNA tracing through genealogy websites.
“This grant will afford us a tremendous opportunity to bring closure to our victims’ families,” said county Deputy Police Chief Anthony Schartner, “and to bring justice to our victims.”
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