Genealogy movies

Police used a genealogy website to solve a cold case from Iowa. The tool raises concerns elsewhere.

The cold-blooded murder of Cedar Rapids teenager Michelle Martinko went unsolved for decades, until last month when prosecutors secured a conviction based on a 40-year-old crime scene years and on a family genealogy website. It is one of the first cases of its kind to go to trial, but it raises questions of ethics and legality.

It was 1979, the week before Christmas, when 18-year-old Michelle Martinko went to a brand new mall in Cedar Rapids to buy a winter coat. But she never went home that night; she was found stabbed to death in her parents’ Buick in the mall parking lot.

With no lethal weapon and no clear motive, Martinko’s murder haunted the people of Cedar Rapids for decades. Generations of police have worked on the case.

They tested and retested DNA evidence the male suspect had left behind at the crime scene, but never got a match in the FBI’s DNA database.

Then in 2018, they heard about a new tool. With the help of private genetics company Parabon NanoLabs, officers uploaded the suspect’s genetic profile to a public genealogy website called GEDmatch.

The site is somewhat similar to the better known 23andMe or ancestry.com. It’s a favorite of people looking for long-lost relatives, and unlike other services, it’s free to use.

After nearly 40 years of investigation, agents have found GEDmatch: a distant cousin living in Washington State.

From there, the private company built a family tree of potential suspects and agents began the tedious task of tracking them down, secretly following the men, waiting for them to throw in something they could test for the DNA.

For Jerry Burns, 64, it was a straw he used at a pizzeria in Manchester, Iowa.

Thirty-nine years to the day after Martinko’s death, officer Matt Denlinger and his partner JD Smith interviewed Burns, in the town where he had lived all his life, just an hour from the crime scene.

They secretly recorded the interaction.

“Did you kill anyone that night, Jerry?” Denlinger asked the man.

“Test the DNA,” Burns said.

“Jerry,” Denlinger continued.

“Test the DNA,” he replied.

“Why did this happen Jerry?” Denlinger interrogated.

“Test the DNA,” he repeated.

“What happened?” asked the officer.

“I don’t know,” Burns replied.

Last month, a jury found Burns guilty of first-degree murder based on DNA evidence. Burns’ case is believed to be only the third in the country to go to trial.

“I see a use in that, I see it. But right now it’s like the Wild West where people do what they do, because there are no rules.” State Senator Charles Sydnor, D-Md.

Other similar cases, including that of the alleged Golden State Killer in California, are at various stages of investigation or awaiting trial. The high-profile California case made national news in April 2018, when officers tracked down the accused serial killer after testing his junk for DNA. The development is considered a major breakthrough and has sparked similar investigations in other cases across the country.

But the use of genetic genealogy by law enforcement remains controversial. In recent years, GEDmatch has changed its policies to alert users that investigators have an interest in the site. While in the past police had access to the profiles of all of the site’s nearly one million users, these users are now required to register if they wish to take part in searches carried out by the police.

Lawmakers in several states are considering restricting police access to consumer DNA databases.

At first, State Senator Charles Sydnor, D-Md, wanted to ban the practice. But after the lawyers push back, he seeks a compromise.

“I see a use in it, I do it,” Sydnor said. “But right now it’s like the Wild West where people do what they do, because there are no rules,” Sydnor said.

There are a few rules. The Department of Justice has issued guidelines on how officers should use genetic genealogy. But that’s just it, advice. And there is a lot of interest in this technology.

Parabon NanoLabs, which worked on the Burns case and is one of the go-to private contractors in the field, says it has now worked with agencies in 47 states.

“We could set up a society where we catch all the bad guys. But at the same time we would imprison ourselves in the government.” – Michael Melendez, Libertas Institute

Searches of consumer databases are generally reserved for the most difficult to solve violent crimes, often cold cases.

But sometimes investigators don’t really know who they’re looking for and don’t have a search warrant.

Sydnor’s bill would put limits on this practice, limiting family searches for DNA profiles to a smaller network of family members.

“[In larger searches] you involve a number of people who have … where there’s absolutely no probable cause, they have nothing to do with the crime you’re trying to solve, yet you’re extracting their genetic information,” Sydnor said. .

Michael Melendez of the libertarian think tank Libertas Institute helped draft a bill filed in Utah. He says he has no doubt that a larger scale of what some call “genetic surveillance” could help officers solve more crimes.

“We could create a society where we catch all the bad guys,” Melendez said. “But at the same time, we would imprison ourselves in the government.”

“You can make a point, especially in light of recent Supreme Court precedent that obtaining information from a public or private database without a warrant is unconstitutional,” – Christopher Slobogin, Faculty of Law from Vanderbilt University

The practice of warrantless searches of consumer databases also worries Christopher Slobogin, director of the criminal justice program at Vanderbilt University Law School.

“Oh yeah, I think they definitely need to get a warrant,” Slobogin said. “You can make a point, especially in light of recent Supreme Court precedent that obtaining information from a public or private database without a warrant is unconstitutional.”

In fact, Jerry Burns’ attorney argued that the use of the database in his case was unconstitutional research and in violation of his Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

Legal experts say this is the first time the constitutionality of the searches has been raised in court.

But the judge in the case dismissed it citing the so-called third party doctrine, writing that because GEDmatch users have shared their DNA with a third party (GEDmatch), they don’t expect the confidentiality of this information.

In Carpenter v. United States of 2018, the justices of the United States Supreme Court hinted that they may reconsider modern digital information privacy rights. But it’s unclear how that might impact those consumer databases.

In the meantime, Janelle Stonebraker is grateful that investigators have that option. She is the sister of Michelle Martinko and said she had lost hope of seeing a resolution in the case when investigators called her to let her know they would be re-examining the DNA from the crime scene.

“It was of course an incredible revelation and a shift in thinking and feeling. Because who else could it have been all these years?” – Janelle Stonebraker, sister of Michelle Martinko

The use of genetics in the case led to the elimination of over a hundred potential suspects. For Stonebraker, that meant exonerating his sister’s friends and ex-boyfriends, who had long been under police surveillance.

“It was of course an incredible revelation and a shift in thinking and feeling. Because who else could it have been all these years, in our opinion,” Stonebraker said.

Stonebraker said she was aware of criticism of the survey method and that family members were concerned about how genetic information could be used to discriminate against patients in healthcare settings.

“I think the technology is always ahead of the law,” she said. “So I think everything will have to be looked at, they will have to analyze all the permutations and abuses and see what is necessary.”

Another person grateful for this innovation in forensic investigations is Brandy Jennings. It was Jennings’ DNA that led officers to Jerry Burns in the first place. She says that for her, privacy has never been a concern.

” I do not regret it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think I would have chosen otherwise. You know, it’s kind of like one of those things, if you have nothing to hide, what’s the problem? ” she said. “For me anyway.”

Like 200,000 people on GEDmatch, Jennings agreed to let agents use his DNA in their research.

For now, there is nothing stopping them from doing just that.