Genealogy websites

Genealogy Websites Help Solve Crimes and Raise Ethical Questions: NPR


An Iowa man was convicted of murder at the age of 40 after being found on a family genealogy website. Many privacy concerns have been raised and politicians are stepping in.


A murder in Iowa over 40 years ago has gone unsolved for decades. Now there is a conviction thanks to a family genealogy site. Kate Payne of Iowa Public Radio reports that this raises questions about ethics and legality.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: It was 1979, the week before Christmas. And Michelle Martinko, 18, 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 have worked on the case. They tested and retested the DNA the suspect left at the crime scene but never found a match in the FBI 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 called GEDMatch. It’s a lot like 23andMe or and a favorite of people looking for long lost relatives.

And investigators had a blow: a distant cousin living in Washington state. From there, they built a family tree of potential suspects. And the officers began the tedious task of finding them, secretly following the men, waiting for them to throw in something they could test for DNA. For Jerry Burns, 64, it was a straw he used in a pizzeria in Manchester, Iowa. Officer Matt Denlinger went there to interview Burns in the town where he had lived all his life just an hour from the crime scene. Denlinger recorded the interaction.


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




DENLINGER: Why did this happen, Jerry?


DENLINGER: What happened?

BURNS: I don’t know.

PAYNE: Last month a jury convicted Burns of first degree murder based on DNA evidence. But the use of genetic genealogy is controversial. Charles Sydnor is a senator for the state of Maryland, one of the few states to consider restricting police access to consumer DNA databases. At first, Sydnor wanted to ban it. But after defenders push back, he looks for a compromise.

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

PAYNE: There are rules. The Justice Department has issued guidelines on how officers should use genetic genealogy, but that’s just that – guidelines. And there is a lot of interest in this technology. One of the favorite private entrepreneurs says they have now worked with agencies in 47 states. Searches of consumer databases are generally reserved for violent and difficult-to-solve crimes, often cold cases. But, sometimes investigators don’t really know who they’re looking for and don’t have a warrant. Christopher Slobogin of Vanderbilt Law School says this raises concerns.

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

PAYNE: Actually, counsel for Jerry Burns argued that the use of the database in his case was illegal. Experts say this is the first time the constitutionality of these searches has been raised in court. But the judge shot him down. The US Supreme Court has hinted that it may reconsider digital information privacy rights. In the meantime, Brandy Jennings is happy that investigators have this option. It was Jennings’ DNA that led the agents to Jerry Burns in the first place. And privacy has never been a concern.

BRANDY JENNINGS: I don’t regret it. I don’t think this is a bad thing. You know it’s kind of like one of those things – if you have nothing to hide what’s the problem? – For me anyway.

PAYNE: Like 200,000 people on GEDMatch, Jennings agreed to let agents use her DNA in their research. And right now, there’s nothing stopping them from doing just that. For NPR News, I’m Kate Payne in Iowa City.

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