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Genealogy Websites Help To Solve Crimes, Raise Questions About Ethics

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A murder in Iowa more than 40 years ago went unsolved for decades. Now there is a conviction thanks to a family genealogy website. Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne reports it's raising questions about ethics and legality.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: It was 1979, the week before Christmas. And 18-year-old Michelle Martinko went to a mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to buy a winter coat. But she never made it home that night. She was stabbed to death in the parking lot. There was no murder weapon and no clear motive. And generations of police officers worked the case. They tested and retested DNA that the male suspect left at the crime scene but never got a match in the FBI's database.

Then in 2018, they heard about a new tool. With the help of a private genetics firm, officers uploaded the suspect's DNA to a public genealogy website site called GEDMatch. It's kind of like 23andMe or ancestry.com and a favorite of people looking for long-lost relatives.

And investigators got a hit - a distant cousin living in Washington State. From there, they built a family tree of potential suspects. And officers began the tedious task of tracking them down, secretly following the men, waiting for them to throw away something they could test for DNA. For 64-year-old Jerry Burns, it was a straw he used at a pizza restaurant in Manchester, Iowa. Officer Matt Denlinger went there to question Burns in the city where he'd lived his whole life just an hour from the crime scene. Denlinger recorded the interaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT DENLINGER: Did you murder someone that night, Jerry?

JERRY BURNS: Test the DNA.

DENLINGER: Jerry...

BURNS: Test the DNA.

DENLINGER: Why did this happen, Jerry?

BURNS: Test the DNA.

DENLINGER: What happened?

BURNS: I don't know.

PAYNE: Last month, a jury convicted Burns of first-degree murder based on the DNA evidence. But using genetic genealogy is controversial. Charles Sydnor is a state senator in Maryland, one of a handful of states considering restricting police access to consumer DNA databases. At first, Sydnor wanted to ban it. But after advocates pushed back, he's seeking a compromise.

CHARLES SYDNOR: Right now, it's like the wild, Wild West, where people are just kind of doing what they do because there are no rules.

PAYNE: There are some rules. The Department of Justice has put out guidance on how officers should use genetic genealogy, but it's just that - guidance. And there's a lot of interest in this technology. One of the go-to private contractors says they've now worked with agencies in 47 states. Consumer database searches are generally reserved for hard-to-solve, violent crimes, often cold cases. But, sometimes, investigators don't really know who they're searching for and don't have a warrant. Christopher Slobogin of Vanderbilt Law School says that raises concerns.

CHRISTOPHER SLOBOGIN: You can make an argument, especially in light of recent Supreme Court precedent, that obtaining information from either a public or private database without a warrant is unconstitutional.

PAYNE: In fact, Jerry Burns' lawyer argued that using the database in his case was illegal. Experts say it's the first time the constitutionality of these searches has been raised in court. But the judge shot it down. The U.S. Supreme Court has hinted it could reexamine privacy rights to digital information. In the meantime, Brandy Jennings is glad investigators have this option. It was Jennings' DNA that led officers to Jerry Burns in the first place. And privacy was never a concern.

BRANDY JENNINGS: I don't regret it. I don't think that it's a bad thing. You know, it's kind of like one of those things - if you don't have anything to hide, what's the big deal? - to me anyways.

PAYNE: Like 200,000 people on GEDMatch, Jennings has agreed to let officers use her DNA in their searches. And as of now, there's not much stopping them from doing just that. For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.