Genealogy databases could be used in criminal investigations

Police departments love the popularity of at-home DNA test kits. They're already helping investigators solve old murder cases and other violent crimes.

At-home DNA kits have been marketed as holiday gifts and a way to learn more about family connections. They're also a tool for people who want to add their information to databases that allow them to search for relatives. That's a particular benefit to people who were adopted or conceived through artificial insemination using donor sperm. Numerous people have found lost siblings or parents. Others have uncovered relatives they didn't even know existed.

Many times, DNA evidence also gets collected at the scene of a violent crime. It's difficult for anyone present when a violent crime is committed not to leave genetic evidence behind in the form of skin cells, sweat, hair and other biological substances. Increasingly sophisticated equipment and processes make it possible to obtain a suspect's DNA profile from very tiny samples of that material.

However, investigators are still often unable to identify suspects through their DNA. The limited nature of police databases has made it difficult to turn up a DNA match to a crime scene sample unless the DNA's donor was somehow already in the criminal justice system.

That may be changing.

According to researchers, anyone in the United States of European descent already has a 60 percent chance of finding a distant relation in one of the existing databases that have now been assembled through at-home DNA testing. That figure may soon rise to 90 percent.

For investigators, that means that they stand a good chance of tracking down a suspect if they have the suspect's DNA -- even if the suspect has never taken a DNA test. They can start with long-range matches found in the online databases and work their way through someone's family tree until they locate their suspect.

Think it sounds far-fetched? That's exactly how California authorities were able to finally able to catch the "Golden State Killer" -- a man who terrorized the state more than thirty years ago.

It's important to remember that some violent crimes, like murder, have no statute of limitations on prosecution. If investigators come calling, it's wise to have an experienced defense attorney by your side to help protect your rights, no matter how old the case.

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