For the last couple of days, the genetic genealogy world has been inflamed by the news that a 20-year-old Washington murder case has being re-examined in light of a Y-DNA analysis performed by the forensic genealogist, Colleen Fitzpatrick. Many surname DNA project administrators are, understandably, extremely concerned about the implications and repercussions of this national story on DNA testing for genealogy. I hesitated to write about it because it has stirred such strong feelings in our community, but finally realized that is exactly why I must write about it. Many would prefer to sweep it under the rug because of the damage it could do to our avocation, but as the story has been picked up by national news outlets, I have reached the conclusion that this is no longer realistic. As a result, I will add my voice to the discussion.
Apparently, Fitzpatrick utilized the public Y-DNA databases such as Y-search and, possibly, public surname DNA projects in an attempt to determine the potential surname of the murderer of 16-year old cheerleader, Sarah Yarborough of Federal Way. Blaine Bettinger of "The Genetic Genealogist" gives a good overview in his post, so I won't rehash the details here, except to say that I share the concerns of many in the community that in the sensationalism, the probability of the killer bearing this particular surname has been overestimated. I also worry along with my colleagues that these types of stories could discourage some people from participating in DNA testing for genealogical or other non-essential purposes. While I think these are important considerations, we may be focusing on the wrong things.
Bettinger emphasizes that this is, in reality, not a new technique. Along those lines, I'd like to share a comment that I wrote to the ISOGG mailing list for project administrators in October of last year when a BBC article on the FBI's potential use of familial DNA, including Y-DNA, was introduced and discussed. When another member wondered where law enforcement might get its matches, I responded, "Our surname projects." Met with skepticism, I explained:
Because many FTDNA surname projects are the best and most thorough source of Y-DNA research for many surnames. I wouldn't think they would use individual results, rather the surname research as a whole to compare Y-DNA samples against. For instance, "Anonymous Sample X matches Group Two of the well-researched XXYZX Surname DNA Project." Hmmm...maybe we should be looking at male XXYZXs in the area?
Yes, because of the absence of chain-of-custody maybe they couldn't use these databases for proof in court, but they could certainly use them to get leads. If you are saying that these projects are meaningless because people may use aliases when they test, then all of our combined surname research has been pointless.
What other options are there if they [law enforcement] are now interested in Y-DNA, assuming in the past they have routinely only tested CODIS markers? For them to retest all of the existing samples for Y-DNA and create surname matching databases? That seems like a very time and money intensive proposition. I know that presented with an alleged criminal's anonymous Y-DNA profile most of us here could, in some cases, pinpoint the likely surname without much difficulty using our public resources - Y-search and public surname projects. What would stop the FBI from doing the same? How do we know that they don't already?
I've been thinking about this for awhile. If one of my loved ones was murdered and I had access to that DNA sample, you better believe that I would be using our databases to try to figure out who was guilty. Wouldn't you?
Am I wrong?
No one wanted to discuss the subject then.
I'm not claiming to be clairvoyant, in fact, this was bound to happen sooner or later. If it was an obvious possibility to me, someone who has no experience in law enforcement and doesn't even watch CSI, it had to be abundantly clear to those in a position to be able to do something about it. The Yarborough case may be the first time these tools have publicly been used for this purpose, but we would be naive to think it is truly the first time these methods have come into play in the process of an investigation of this kind.
Fortunately, I believe that we still have a leg to stand on when we tell our potential project members that law enforcement cannot use their DNA, tested by genetic genealogy companies, against them. As I also wrote that day on the mailing list:
I also strongly believe that YOUR (as in a single testee's) sample cannot be used against YOU because of the chain of custody issue...I just believe that our PUBLIC databases (not FTDNA's private database) are a resource in which GROUPS of samples combined with our research can be used against criminals and I am all for that!
I am aware of the ethical arguments for and against this practice, but, in my opinion, what it comes down to is this: If one of your loved ones was murdered and you believed that you could identify the guilty party using the same resources that we use for our hobby...wouldn't you?
Related Stories around the blogosphere (for more excellent analysis of these issues, please also read the comment section below):
"Does DNA Link 1991 Killing to Colonial Era Family? by Blaine Bettinger of The Genetic Genealogist
"Unexpected Use of DNA" by Debbie Parker Wayne of Deb's Delvings in Genealogy