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Genetic Genealogy– how it led police into apprehending the Idaho Killer

Lock your doors, secure your windows, and always stay on alert. Nighttime is when you are at your most vulnerable point. 

Four college students attending the University of Idaho, all on the verge of beginning a new chapter in their lives, were brutally assassinated in their sleep on Nov. 12. In less than two months, an arrest was made– 28-year-old aspiring criminologist Bryan Kohberger was identified as a prime suspect of the quadruple homicide through the use of genetic genealogy, a practice that traces the family links of profiles developed from DNA evidence.

Though some may believe that the government’s usage of public databases to zero in on the identities of criminals through genetic sequencing is an invasion of digital privacy, this revolutionary technology is a critical tool that allows investigators to solve more crimes and make the world a safer place.

Previously, before sites like AncestryDNA and 23andme came to fruition, investigators could only tap into DNA databases containing the genetic information of those already convicted of crimes. As a result, it was immensely difficult to trace individuals not in the database through physical evidence, so those that committed crimes with clean records were nearly impossible to be identified. 

However, with the turn of the century, many Americans nationwide began uploading samples of their DNA to public databases more frequently due to the increasing affordability of at-home DNA tests. By submitting the samples to the online sites, people could analyze their ethnic makeup or find details surrounding lost family members. Sooner or later, investigators realized the potential that the growing genetic databases had in solving crimes and took advantage of the new resource.

However, the process that led investigators into apprehending Kohberger was everything short of being easy. Genetic genealogists had to build a profile for him from scratch, incorporating census records, 

A well-known example of a crime solved due to the usage of the new technology is the mystery behind the Golden State Killer’s identity. Though the case was left unsolved for decades, the advancement in the development of DNA evidence led investigators into identifying former police officer Joseph DeAngelo as the perpetrator. He pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and confessed his role in numerous burglaries and other serious crimes.

However, this is the first time that genealogists have led police into apprehending a suspect in an ongoing investigation. This marks a revolutionary advancement in science, as this proves the practice’s efficiency and success rate at identifying suspects even without any leads and a nearly-clean crime scene.

It is due to genetic genealogy that cold cases are resurfacing with leads in the present time. With this, those that aim to commit crimes will be heavily incentivized to adhere to the law, as the case of the Idaho killings serve as a warning to those who think they can get away with such heinous crimes. However, the technology is still relatively new, so it is normal to have many unanswered questions about where its future lies.

Sure, some may still think that the government’s access to public DNA databases violates the privacy of Americans, but the minor trade-off is clearly beyond worth it. Users can already access them in their entirety by uploading their own DNA samples and simply creating an account, so what makes what the government is doing any different? They essentially follow the same protocol– uploading a sample, researching the ancestral links tied to it, and downloading the data. 

Plus, permission is granted by users on the public DNA databases that the government will test the sample with before any research is conducted. Also, not all genealogy databases permit law enforcement use. Additionally, laws passed across multiple states regulating the field of study by balancing privacy and public safety are becoming increasingly widespread. Investigators are not using the data for anything else other than to pinpoint a perpetrator, so where is the harm done? 

Furthermore, genetic genealogy can also be used to prove the innocence of wrongly convicted people. Not only can it catch culprits, but it could also exonerate those who were forced to bear the shame of a crime they did not commit. This depicts just how versatile the technology is and suggests that its use may be more commonplace in the near future. 

At the end of the day, the recent development of genetic genealogy is a landmark step toward a safer world for everyone living in it. With this new technology, cases previously deemed unsolvable have hope of being solved. Sometimes, allowing a minor trade-off– transparency for security– is the way to improve the quality of life of those who prefer to live crime-free lives.

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