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Genealogy tests usher in new era of criminal investigations

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As another holiday season moves past, thousands of Americans will be anxiously awaiting the results of the genealogy tests they received as presents.

Law enforcement officers may also be waiting on the newest addition to what has become an increasingly useful tool when it comes to closing cold cases: DNA databanks.

As recently as November 2017, the 2001 murder of a 25-year-old woman was solved thanks to DNA that was left behind at a crime scene and modern-day genetic testing that identified the killer. It was the 24th time since April that suspects in crimes have been identified the same way. At least two of the cases that have been solved had plagued investigators for 30 or more years.

The majority of the cases have been cracked with the aid of genetic genealogists at Parabon NanoLabs. Genetic genealogy is an emerging discipline that allows researchers to track an unknown individual — in this case, a suspected killer — through the genetic data submitted to genealogy databases by their families. The data gleaned from all of those genetic tests that people take seeking to learn more about their ancestry can then be used to enhance things like the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is used by the law enforcement.

These "family tree forensics" are starting to become part of routine police procedures in some cases. It doesn't matter if an individual has contributed to a genetic database or not because he or she can be identified through relatives who have used DNA kits. In addition, it doesn't take a court order to mine the data available in the databases created through popular testing methods.

It remains to be seen, however, exactly how reliable the "genetic investigators" who are doing all the work really are. It's important to remember that the science surrounding genetic data is constantly evolving, which means that there's room to question the results investigators get from their efforts.

In addition, there are serious privacy concerns that are raised by the way that investigators are using the genetic evidence in some of those databases. Many people anticipate legal challenges in the future that could limit how genetic data can be used.

Have you been accused of a violent crime based on DNA evidence? Don't assume that your case is hopeless. Talk to an experienced defense attorney about your situation.

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