New DNA tool helps identify murder victims and elusive killers and rapists

Michele Hanisee
President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys

They’re neighbors. Church leaders. Business executives.

They’re also murders and rapists who share a common bond in addition to their horrific crimes: they were all identified with a cutting-edge new tool called investigative genetic genealogy, or IGG.

IGG itself is not new – it’s what millions of genealogists, family historians and adoptees worldwide use to research their family trees and find birth parents by uploading their DNA to family-matching databases. What’s new is its use by law enforcement.

“Dozens of suspected killers and rapists have been identified, arrested, charged and prosecuted using investigative genetic genealogy,” says the nonprofit Institute for DNA Justice. “Most were living ordinary lives and living in plain sight.” 

The same technology has been used to identify Jane Doe and John Doe murder victims whose true identity was unknown to law enforcement.  A family whose loved one disappeared decades past can find closure when the DNA from unidentified remains finally reveals the name of the deceased.

The mission of the Institute for DNA Justice is to raise awareness about the value of IGG to identify, arrest and convict criminals; exonerate people who were wrongly accused or convicted; and identify previously unidentified murder victims. The Institute encourages all 26 million Americans who have taken DNA tests to participate in family-matching databases that are available to the public and to law enforcement agencies.

Statistics underscore the importance of the Institute’s mission. In the last year alone, law enforcement use of IGG has resulted in an estimated 50-plus arrests nationwide in cold-case violent crimes.

Two of the most high-profile arrests resulting from the use of IGG – the alleged Golden State Killer and the alleged NorCal Rapist – occurred here in California. And, while most of the criminal cases are pending, at least two people who committed unspeakable crimes – and got away with them for decades – have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison.

Raymond Rowe pleaded guilty earlier this year to sexually assaulting and murdering 25-year-old teacher Christy Mirack in Pennsylvania in 1992. And John D. Miller pleaded guilty late last year to sexually assaulting and murdering 8-year-old April Tinsley in 1988 in Indiana. 

 Here’s how IGG works. By submitting cold-case DNA to genealogical databases, law enforcement receives a list of potential matches or relatives of the unidentified suspect or homicide victim. The list of potential matches becomes a lead that investigators use to narrow down the possible suspects or victim.

The process comes with important privacy protections. As Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert points out, law enforcement agencies have the exact same access to the databases as any member of the public – nothing more. They are not able to search databases or obtain the DNA profiles of people who have uploaded their information.  Moreover, an IGG search can only be used for unsolved violent crimes as a tool of last resort when all other investigative options have been exhausted.

To help identify and apprehend other predators like Rowe and Miller, the Institute for DNA Justice asks that everyone who has taken a DNA test through Ancestry, 23andMe or MyHeritage to become genetic witnesses. It’s easy to do – you can potentially help put vicious criminals behind bars simply by uploading your DNA profile to the FamilyTree DNA and/or GEDMatch databases for free.

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