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Are These Crime Drama Clues Fact or Fiction?

Steven Avery, featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, served 18 years in prison for rape, then was exonerated by DNA. He was convicted of murder in 2007, based partly on DNA evidence.
Steven Avery, featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, served 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated by DNA in 2003. In 2007, he was convicted of murder, based partly on DNA evidence.

I’m often just as surprised by what forensic scientists can’t do as by what they can. In the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, for instance, the question of whether police planted the main character’s blood at a crime scene comes down to whether or not the FBI can detect a common laboratory chemical called EDTA in a bloodstain.

On a TV crime show, this would be a snap. The test would take about five minutes and would involve inserting a swab into a magic detector box that beeps and spits out an analysis of every substance known to humankind.

In real life, there’s no common and accepted test in forensic labs for EDTA even today, nine years after the FBI tested blood for the Steven Avery trial featured in Making a Murderer. In that case, the FBI resurrected a test they had last used in the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, and testified that the blood in question did not contain EDTA and therefore was not planted using EDTA-preserved blood from an evidence vial. (Avery was convicted.)

Questions about the test’s power and reliability have dogged the case ever since. There’s even an in-depth Reddit thread where fans of the Netflix show are trying to sort out the science.

Having worked in chemistry labs, it surprised me at first that this analysis would be difficult or controversial. After all, a quick search of the scientific literature turns up methods for detecting low levels of EDTA in everything from natural waters to beverages.

Steven Averys
Steven Avery’s attorneys Jerome Buting (shown) and Dean Strang struggled to dispute chemical evidence introduced mid-trial that undermined the idea that police had planted blood evidence.

But the key here is that we’re talking about forensic science, not beverage chemistry. Beverage chemistry, in this case, is much more exacting. Was there really no EDTA in the blood swabbed from victim Teresa Halbach’s vehicle, or was the chemical simply too diluted or degraded to be detected with the FBI’s method? Could the test have missed a small amount of EDTA? It would be hard to say without further experiments that replicate crime scene conditions, experiments that essentially put the test to the test.

The reality is that forensic science today is a strange mix of the high-tech and the outdated, so questions about evidence like those in Avery’s case are not uncommon. Methods that we take for granted, like measuring a particular chemical, or lifting a fingerprint off a gun and matching it to a suspect, can be difficult—and far from foolproof. On the other hand, some of the real science happening now sounds like something dreamed up by Hollywood script writers, such as new methods aiming to reconstruct what a person’s face looks like using only their DNA.

Making a Murderer, whether it sways your opinion on Steven Avery or not, has done a service by getting people interested in something as arcane as EDTA tests, and by showing why real-life crimes are not solved nearly so neatly as fictional ones.

I see the messiness of forensic science all the time, because I scan its journals and often come across new studies that make me think either “you mean we couldn’t already do that?” or “I had no idea that was possible.” I’ve gathered a few recent examples for a quiz.

How well can you separate CSI fact from fiction? Here are a few crime-solving scenarios I’ve cooked up; see if you can tell which use real methods based on new forensic research. You’ll find the answers below.

  1. A skeleton is found buried in a shallow grave. The body’s soft tissues have completely decomposed, so only the teeth and bones remain. A forensic anthropologist examines the bones and reports that they come from a female who was five foot six inches tall, and obese. Could she really tell the person was overweight?
  2. The body of a white male in his 50s turns up on a nature trail, scavenged by animals. The victim’s bones show a number of puncture wounds consistent with animal bites, but x-rays reveal fine lines of different density in the bone around some of the punctures. An expert says these lines show that the wounds were made about 10 years before death. Is it possible to tell the approximate age of these wounds from x-rays?
  3. A woman is found dead in her home, bludgeoned to death. A bloody frying pan lies on the floor next to her. Her husband is the main suspect. Fingerprints on the pan’s handle are too smudged to make a definitive ID, but an analyst says she can still rule out the husband: All of the fingerprints on the pan came from a woman, the expert says. Is it possible to tell if the fingerprints were from a male or female?
  4. A woman is sexually assaulted and identifies her male attacker in a lineup. The suspect’s DNA matches DNA found on her body. It looks like an easy case for the prosecutor—until the suspect reveals that he has an identical twin. Neither twin admits to the crime. Is it possible to tell which twin’s DNA was found at the crime scene?
  5. A witness sees a man in a stocking mask rob and shoot a man outside his home. A stocking is found near the house, and a hair-analysis expert testifies that 13 hairs in the mask are all human head hairs from an African-American. A microscopic analysis matches the characteristics of one hair to a particular African-American suspect. The prosecutor tells the jury that the chances are one in ten million that this could be someone else’s hair. Can hairs be matched to an individual this accurately?


Answers Below


  1. Yes. Biologists have long known that greater body mass changes the weight-bearing bones of the legs and spine, and a new study shows that even bones that aren’t supporting most of the body’s weight, such as arm bones, have greater bone mass and are stronger in obese people. So even in a skeleton missing its legs, our forensic anthropologist might be able to tell that the person was obese.
  2. No. This one is from an actual episode of Bones (The Secret in the Siege, Season 8, Episode 24, reviewed here by real-life bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove). In the episode, Dr. Temperance Brennan uses Harris lines to determine the age of bone injuries in two victims. Harris lines are real, but they form only in growing bones, so are useful only in determining childhood injuries or illness.
  3. Yes. A study published in November showed that the level of amino acids in sweat is about twice as high in women’s fingerprints as in men’s. Of course, as with all the new methods, this one could face challenges as evidence in a U.S. court of law, where the Daubert standard allows judges to decide whether scientific evidence is admissible based on factors including its degree of acceptance by the scientific community.
  4. Yes, if you do it right. Standard DNA tests don’t distinguish between twins, who are born with nearly identical DNA, but it’s possible to do a more sophisticated test to catch post-birth mutations and epigenetic differences, which you can think of as genetic “add-ons” that don’t affect the DNA sequence itself. One new test distinguishes between twins by looking for small differences in the melting temperature of their DNA that are caused by such epigenetic modifications.
  5. No. The field of hair analysis has come under heavy scrutiny, especially after a review by the U.S. Justice Department revealed major flaws in 257 out of 268 hair analyses from the FBI. The case described here is the real-life case of Santae Tribble, convicted in 1978 of murder. In 2012, DNA tests showed that none of the hairs matched Tribble—and one was from a dog.
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Uprooted, Again

For me, the hardest part of writing a story is finding the end. It often feels arbitrary, or artificial, or both. A person’s story isn’t necessarily over, after all, just because I’m ready to write it down. But I can’t put it off forever, either. Editors are waiting, and my unpaid bills. So I squeak out an ending and just cross my fingers that a better one — the real one — doesn’t show itself the day after publication.

Earlier this month, I heard the real ending for a story I wrote more than a year ago about people who use DNA to fill in branches of their family tree. It’s a doozy, and has me thinking hard, again, about the profound consequences of so-called “recreational genetics.”

In 2008 the story’s protagonist, 56-year-old Cheryl Whittle from rural Virginia, heard about DNA testing on Oprah. Just for kicks she bought a kit for herself, her husband, and two of her siblings. When the results came back in her email inbox, she discovered that the man who raised her, the man she had thought was her father, wasn’t. He had died in 1989, several years after Cheryl’s mom, and few people were still alive who had known them at the time of Cheryl’s conception. Thus Cheryl began a long, circuitous, frustrating, emotional quest in genetic genealogy to find out who her father really was.

When my story ended (spoiler alert), Cheryl had been through one emotional roller coaster after another. Her search had angered some of her immediate family members, and greatly disappointed a woman who longed to be Cheryl’s biological sister but turned out to be a distant cousin. As of August 2013, when my reporting wound down, Cheryl had made contact with another possible sister who refused to get a DNA test because she was worried about tarnishing the memory of her late father.

After my story was published, Cheryl and I kept in touch on Facebook. She often Liked my articles, and I commented on photos of her new great-grandchild. She patched things up with her immediate family, and seemed to be healing from some of the bruises of genetic genealogy. But despite everything she had been through, she didn’t give up the search for her father.

Long before I met her, Cheryl had used online DNA databases to find a woman estimated to be her second cousin, a fairly close match. (The woman had to be on Cheryl’s father’s side because her DNA didn’t match with one of Cheryl’s half sisters.) This woman was a genealogy buff who had put much of her family research online. So one of the branches on this woman’s tree, Cheryl knew, had to lead to her father.

This July, Cheryl traced one of those lines to Edward Barden of Orange County, Virginia, about 70 miles from where she grew up. Cheryl thought Edward was a little too young to be her father — he would have been about 19, and her mother 26, at the time of her conception. But then again, she thought, you never know.


Cheryl called Edward’s daughter, Edie Growden, figuring that a younger generation might be more comfortable with the idea of mailing a vial of spit to a lab for DNA testing. During that first call, Cheryl was vague, saying simply that she was interested in genealogy and thought they had some connections. They eventually agreed to meet in person at Edward’s house. The night before the proposed meeting, Edie’s husband suggested that she look up this Cheryl lady online. She was a complete stranger, after all. So Edie Googled her, and found my article. Oops.

The next morning, Cheryl got in her yellow pick-up truck and made the pretty two-and-a-half-hour drive to Edward’s house. She knew, by this point, that there was no point in feeling anxious, nor in getting her hopes up. She had two new DNA kits in the back seat, just in case. “God gave me, in my spirit, the calm to know that everything was going to be OK,” she says.

When she arrived at Edward’s house he was at a doctor’s appointment. Edie answered the door and brought Cheryl into the kitchen for some coffee. “Are you still looking for your father?” she said. Cheryl, a bit taken aback, said she was. She took out some papers showing her cousin’s family tree, with Edward and his four brothers underlined.

Edward’s car pulled into the garage. He had picked up groceries, so Edie and Cheryl went out to help him unload. When he looked at Cheryl, his face went white and he dropped a bag of eggs on the ground. Cheryl went out to her truck for the DNA kits.

While she was out, Edie told her dad that Cheryl was looking for her father. “Edie, that’s Roy’s child,” he said, tears in his eyes. Roy was his older brother, Edie’s uncle, who had passed away in 1999. “Really?” Edie said, skeptical. “Look at her!” Edward said. But, he added, he wanted to hear more of Cheryl’s story before admitting to anything, to make sure he wasn’t grasping at straws.

Cheryl came back and sat down at the kitchen table. Edie then saw the resemblance to her uncle — especially in Cheryl’s eyes, nose and mouth. It seemed unmistakable. Edward, leaned against the sink, looked straight at her. “Well, Cheryl, tell me what you’re looking for.”

Cheryl told him the gist of her story, just as she’s told many times before. “What was your mother’s name?” he asked. Vivian Laverne Tipton, she said, from Richmond. “Did she have a sister with blonde hair named Virginia?” he asked. Yes, Virginia was her twin, Cheryl said. “Look no further,” Edward said. “You’re my brother Roy’s child.”

Over the next couple of hours the whole story came out. Virginia had been dating a Richmond bus driver named Perry who spent every weekend in a small town a couple of hours north. So Virginia started spending her weekends there, too. They stayed in a big, old house — “The Racer House” — which on the weekends was full of young people dancing and playing games. Soon Vivian was accompanying her sister on weekends, and that’s how she met Roy Barden, who was living there as a caretaker.

Edward remembers Vivian and Roy dating for about a year. At some point she told him she wanted to get married, but Roy wasn’t ready. When she told him that her doctor in Richmond said she was pregnant, he told her he wanted his doctor to verify it. After that, Roy told Edward, he never heard another word from her. She never came back to the Racer House, and never called.

Edward’s memories were vivid. There was no doubt in his mind that Cheryl was Roy’s daughter. But Cheryl, who’s been down these memory lanes before, needed DNA proof. Edie took one kit into another room for the spitting. Edward’s mouth was too dry, but he said he’d do it in the next few days.

Cheryl (right) with Edward (left) and Edie (middle)
Cheryl (right) with Edward (left) and Edie (middle)

Edie and Edward were excited by the news. There was a thorny issue to sort out, however. Years after Vivian left, Roy married another woman and they had four children, Cheryl’s presumed half-siblings. Roy’s widow was still alive, but sick, and Edward and Edie don’t get along well with that side of the family. So they didn’t know what to tell Cheryl about reaching out to her presumed siblings. “A search like this, it really could turn a lot of people’s lives upside-down,” Edie told me. “Things that they thought were the truth all of a sudden aren’t.”


About a month later, on August 15, Cheryl had Edie’s results: they were indeed first cousins. Nine days after that, the other test came back and confirmed that Edward was her uncle.

At that point, there was no reason not to believe Edward’s memories about Roy and Vivian. And yet, Cheryl couldn’t let her story end there. There was still a possibility that her father wasn’t Roy, but one of the other Barden brothers. It was a slim chance, sure, but it happens. (In fact, when I was reporting my original story I read a book by an adoptee whose family search was upended by one such fraternal mix-up.)

So once again Cheryl was faced with an ethical dilemma: Should she reach out to these possible half siblings? And if so, would they want to tell their ailing mother?

Ultimately, Cheryl did reach out to all four of her siblings, through Facebook, phone calls and handwritten letters. The first couple of weeks were pretty stressful for her, especially because one of her siblings asked for a bit of time to adjust. At one point, Cheryl told me via Facebook message, she had spent many days crying.

I asked her, as delicately as I could: Cheryl, do you really not believe your uncle’s story? Why do you need to keep testing your siblings?

“I feel I need to prove it, and yes even to me,” she responded. “I don’t trust well.”

“I just have so many mixed feelings right now. I don’t want to hurt anyone, most especially my newly found most precious Uncle, Edward.  Nor my cousin Edie!” she continued. Still, though, it wasn’t the end yet. “I want to be absolutely sure where I am in the family.”

Since then, I’m very happy to report, things have gotten much easier for Cheryl. In the past few weeks she’s had heartfelt meetings or phone calls with each of her siblings. One of them, Tim, took a DNA test for her, and on October 6, she got the results: half siblings. She sent me a message: “I am indeed the daughter of Roy Oscar Barden. And half sibling to Luther, Oscar, Tim, and Joyce Ann Barden. I am so excited! And relieved to finally have verified the truth.”

Her new siblings began sending her photographs of Roy over the years, which she naturally compared to pictures of herself.

Photos courtesy of Cheryl Whittle and the Barden family
Cheryl (left) and Roy (right). Photos courtesy of Cheryl Whittle and the Barden family

Cheryl’s siblings told their mother, Barbara, and she, too, has been remarkably welcoming. In fact, this past weekend, Cheryl stayed with Tim and his wife, Wanda, at their home. When she arrived, Tim gave her the trowel and hammer that their father had used as a brick mason. Then he took her to his mom’s house. Barbara gave Cheryl a tour, and showed her photos and the Family bible. Saturday Tim and Wanda organized a party so the rest of the family could meet Cheryl. They all told her she looks more like Roy than any of his other kids, and laughs like him, too. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would have gone so well,” Cheryl told me this morning.

I’m sincerely grateful for Cheryl and the many lessons she has taught me — not only about the real-life consequences of genetic genealogy, but about how rewarding it can be to keep up with sources long after you’ve written their story. (Or the first version of it, anyway.) I’m thrilled that my story now has a real, happy ending, and I wish Cheryl and her new family the happiest of beginnings.

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My DNA Made Me Do It? How Behavioral Genetics Is Influencing the Justice System

On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school, as well as 6 school staffers, his mother, and himself. Within two weeks, the Connecticut Medical Examiner commissioned a group of geneticists to screen Lanza’s DNA.

And for what, exactly? Who knows. There are any number of genetic variants the scientists could zero in on — variants that have been linked to a propensity for violence, aggression, psychopathy, or psychiatric disorders. One thing I’d bet on: The screen will find something. Each of us carries genetic mutations somewhere along our 3-billion-letter DNA code. Some mutations are benign, some are not; some have huge effects, others tiny. But there’s no way to know how (or whether) any of them affects behavior.

Another thing I’d bet on: The media (and the public) will use the results of that genetic screen to explain what Lanza did. We all want answers, and a genetic test seemingly provides a long string of them. Answers from science, no less. But, as was pointed out by many scientists and commentators at the time, searching for answers in Lanza’s DNA is futile. “There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence,” read an editorial in Nature. “Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.”

The Connecticut Medical Examiner is apparently the first to ever request a genetic screen of a dead murderer. It’s an odd move, and perhaps one that can be blamed on intense public scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy. But using genetics to inform criminal cases is not new or even all that rare. As I learned in a fascinating commentary published in today’s issue of Neuron, behavioral genetics has a long history in the American justice system.

The “feeble minded” Carrie Buck, who was forcibly sterilized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Photo from Wikipedia.

The author of the commentary, Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University, cites, for example, the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case from 1927. The court upheld a Virginia law authorizing mandatory sterilization of people who are intellectually disabled, or “feeble minded”, because they threaten the gene pool. I’m not exaggerating. “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the majority opinion. (If you want to be depressed all day, go read the Wikipedia entry about the case.)

Explicit genetic testing entered the courts in the late 1960s, but this time it was on behalf of the accused. Lawyers representing men carrying an extra Y chromosome — known today as ‘XYY syndrome’ — argued that because this genetic condition was overrepresented in prisons, it must drive violent behaviors. But most courts, according to Appelbaum, weren’t sympathetic to this logic, and refused to allow the genetic information into evidence.

Most cases calling on behavioral genetics, like the XYY example, do so in an attempt to lessen the culpability of a defendant who committed a crime. This isn’t usually relevant when deciding the verdict of the case (except for the very rare instances in which a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity). But mitigating factors — such as child abuse, drug use, abnormal brain activity, or genetic disposition — can matter a great deal during sentencing proceedings, particularly if the death penalty is on the table. “Judges tend to be fairly permissive at death penalty hearings,” Appelbaum writes.

In 2011 Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, reported 33 recorded* instances of neuropsychiatric genetic evidence in criminal courts between 2007 and 2011. She had previously reported 44 instances between 1994 and 2007, suggesting that it’s becoming slightly more common. In almost every instance, genetic evidence was used as a mitigating factor in a death penalty case.

The genetic evidence in Denno’s reports tended to be fairly crude: a family history of a condition. But specific genetic tests are beginning to seep into court, too. In 2007, several psychiatrists and geneticists described their experiences presenting evidence at criminal trials related to two gene variants: a variant of monoamine oxidase A, which when mixed with child maltreatment increases the risk of violent behavior, and a variant of the serotonin transporter gene, which when mixed with multiple stressful life events ups the risk of serious depression and suicide. A couple of cases used these scientific links to argue that defendants didn’t have the mental ability to plan their crime in advance. But most of the time genetic evidence was used to mitigate sentences. In 2011, for example, an Italian court reduced a female defendant’s sentence from life in prison to 20 years based on genetic evidence and brain scans that supposedly proved “partial mental illness.”

None of these examples trouble me too much. The U.S. court allows “any aspect of character or record” to be used as a mitigating factor during sentencing, including a defendant’s age, stress level, childhood experiences, criminal history, employment history, and even military service. So why not genetic predisposition, too? It also seems that, so far at least, judges and juries are showing an adequate level of skepticism about this kind of evidence. In 2010, I wrote a story about serial killer Brian Dugan, whose lawyers tried to use brain scans to show that he was a psychopath and didn’t deserve the death penalty. The jury wasn’t swayed.

Most shocking, to me, is how genetic evidence might be used in the civil court system, at least according to Appelbaum. Last year in Canada, a tenant sued her landlord for a fire that, she claimed, caused several injuries that will prevent her from ever working again. The plaintiff had a family history of Huntington’s disease, and the court ordered her to have a blood test to screen for the mutant gene to help determine whether her injuries were the result of the fire or her DNA. She didn’t want to take the test, but if she didn’t she’d have to drop the lawsuit. Appelbaum envisions other possible scenarios in future civil cases:

Employers contesting work-related mental disability claims might… want to compel claimants to undergo genetic testing to prove that an underlying disorder was not responsible for their impairment. Divorcing couples in child-custody disputes, in which court-ordered psychological evaluations are routine, may want to add genetic testing for behavioral traits or neuropsychiatric disorders to the list of procedures that their estranged spouses must undergo to assess their fitness to parent a child. Plaintiffs seeking to establish that a defendant acted recklessly (e.g., in precipitating an auto accident) might attempt to seek data regarding the defendant’s genetic predisposition to impulsive behavior. With increasing utilization of next-generation sequencing in medical settings, and arguments being made for sequencing newborns at birth, adverse parties in civil litigation may not need to compel genetic testing but merely to seek access to existing data.

In these civil cases, which are not usually matters of life and death, I would imagine that the bar for scientific scrutiny would be set lower than in criminal cases. That’s troubling, and all the more reason that we need to better educate the public about what genes can and cannot tell us. As genetic testing continues to infiltrate our medical system, and now our justice system, too, perhaps this education will happen naturally. One can hope.

The Nature editorial regarding the Lanza testing was titled “No easy answer”, and that’s really the crux of all of this. When a person does something awful, we want to know why. But it may be an impossible question.

*Most of Denno’s cases came from appellate courts because usually lower courts don’t have written opinions. So that means her numbers are almost certainly underestimates.

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The End of Family Secrets?

I’ve been tied to the genealogy community ever since I can remember. My dad was always into it — for decades, he collected old documents and photos, and went on fact-finding trips to libraries and cemeteries, all to fill in the holes of his ever-expanding family tree. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around his obsession. Why spend so much time digging up the past?

But I may be in the minority. Genealogy is a booming business, with an estimated 84 million people worldwide spending serious money on the hobby.

As it turns out, the industry owes a big part of its recent success to a technology that I’m quite invested in: genetic testing. Several dozen companies now sell DNA tests that allow customers to trace their ancestry. This technology can show you, for example, how closely you’re related to Neanderthals, or whether you’re part Native American or an Ashkenazi Jew. But the technology can just as easily unearth private information—infidelities, sperm donations, adoptions—of more recent generations, including previously unknown behaviors of your grandparents, parents, and even spouses. Family secrets have never been so vulnerable.

My latest story is about the rise of this so-called “genetic genealogy” and how it has forced some people to confront painful questions about privacy, identity, and family. The story is out today in MATTER, a new publication for long-form narratives about big ideas in science and technology.

The star of my story is Cheryl Whittle, a 61-year-old from eastern Virginia who graciously invited me into her home and into her extended family. Cheryl took her first DNA test in 2009, and what happened after that is a story with lots of twists and turns, joys and sorrows. You’ll have to go read the story to see what I mean — Here you can read a teaser, or buy the whole 10,000 words for just $.99.

One of the things I loved about reporting this story was seeing how genetic technology is being integrated into the lives of people who aren’t all that interested in science. Here’s a quick video of Cheryl, for example, explaining — in fluent genetic lingo — how to compare her 23 pairs of chromosomes to someone else’s using the online service of 23andMe, a popular genetic testing company:

Thanks to genealogy hobbyists like Cheryl, genetic databases are growing larger every day. And this raises some important issues regarding privacy and ethics. It’s plausible that in the not-­too-­distant future, we’ll all be identifiable in genetic databases, whether through our personal contribution or that of our relatives. Is that a good thing? A bad thing?

I’ve heard a wide range of answers to these questions. A couple of months ago I asked my father’s first cousin, John Twist, who has been an avid genealogist for decades, whether he had bought any DNA tests to further his research. Genealogists tend to have a sharing mentality, so his response surprised me. He wrote:

I have NOT sent in my DNA.  I would have, perhaps, earlier, but now with the revelations of Big Brother, I just don’t want to. I read that they caught the BTK killer in Kansas City (?) through his daughters pap smear.  AND, in an article I read yesterday from MIT (?) a fellow said he’d rec’d an anonymous DNA sample and was able to identify the person who’d given it through Ancestry – well, something like that.

My own views tend to fall on the other side of the spectrum. I’m keen on the potential benefits of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, whether it’s used for estimating your medical risks or unearthing family secrets. That said, the full range of its legal and ethical implications has not yet come to light.

Dov Fox, an assistant professor of law at the University of San Diego who specializes in genetic and bioethical issues, told me that it’s only a matter of time before genetic genealogy leads to lawsuits regarding fidelity, paternity, and inheritance. But it’s unclear, for now, how the law will handle those cases.

Here in the U.S., there aren’t any federal privacy statutes that would apply, Fox says. The U.S. Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), passed in 2008, says that health insurers and employers cannot use an individual’s genetic information to deny medical coverage or to make employment decisions. But genetic genealogy doesn’t have anything to do with medical risks. That means lawyers will have to get creative in how they present their cases.

“What happens often with advances in science and technology is that we try to shoehorn new advances into ill-fitting existing statutes,” Fox says. So genetic genealogy cases might hinge upon laws originally written for blackmail, libel, or even peeping Tom violations.

Maybe it’s not all that surprising that genetic genealogy, a new technology, hasn’t ironed out its privacy standards yet.

“When telephones were first becoming widely adopted, you couldn’t just dial someone directly. An operator would put your call through and often listen to the call,” says J. Bradley Jansen, Director of the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the Genealogical Privacy blog. When a technology is new, its novelty trumps any privacy worries. That was true for Facebook, too: At the beginning, everyone shared everything with abandon. “But as technologies mature, privacy, which had been a luxury, becomes an essential commodity,” Jansen says.

I hope he’s right.

And I hope you like the story, now up at MATTER.

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Could DNA Databases Curb Human Trafficking?

Interstate 20 starts on the west side of Texas and runs east to the Atlantic ocean, passing through Dallas along the way. The highway has lots of truck stops, some of which are known sites of prostitution, serial murders, or both. About once a month, always on a Wednesday, Dallas police show up at one of these spots for an unusual sting operation.

The cops round up the prostitutes, usually about a dozen of them, and bring them to an area set up with food, clothes, STD testing, and legal counsel. “They walk them over and say, ‘You would be going to jail if it was Tuesday. But it’s your lucky Wednesday’,” says Sara Katsanis, an associate in research at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. The police give them two options: either go to jail, or start a 14-day rehabilitation program known as the Prostitute Diversion Initiative, or PDI. So far hundreds of prostitutes have chosen the latter.

Since PDI launched in April of 2007, it has helped many prostitutes (almost all women) find addiction counseling, housing, and lawful employment. But many girls stay in the sex industry. It’s a dangerous profession, with a death rate six times higher than average (and a homicide death rate 18 times higher).

PDI participants may voluntarily submit a saliva sample for future DNA testing. The police will test the sample only if it’s relevant to some future crime — most likely, for a post-mortem identification. In other words, the only way the prostitute’s DNA donation can help her is if she turns up dead.

“Prostitutes are quite often, in Texas, victims of homicide, and quite often they don’t carry ID. So the police end up with a crime scene, a victim, and the inability to connect the dots,” Katsanis says. But there may be other beneficial uses for those saliva samples, she says.

Some of the Texas prostitutes, for example, may have been sold into the sex trade as children. Imagine a world in which secure, international databases could match genetic profiles of missing children or human trafficking victims — prostitutes, illegally adopted children, even child soldiers — with profiles submitted by their family members. As Katsanis writes in a commentary published today in Trends in Genetics, this kind of thing is already happening, but on a very small scale. In order for it to be really useful, she says, researchers, policy makers, law enforcement, and non-profits from many different countries will have to work out a whole lot of ethical, legal and logistical issues.

You’ve probably heard of the police using DNA databases to identify criminals — the Supreme Court is now deciding a case about this very thing, and Justice Samuel Alito said it might be “the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades.” But you might be surprised (I was) to learn that U.S. federal authorities also routinely use DNA information for immigration cases. When people want to enter the U.S. as refugees, they may submit DNA samples to prove they’re related to American citizens (a requirement for many refugees). Unlike the criminal DNA databases that are controlled by the government, for immigration cases the feds hire commercial laboratories to perform the tests and store the samples.

Indefinite storage of DNA, especially by the government, naturally raises concerns about privacy and trust. That’s doubly true for vulnerable populations, like children, immigrants and trafficking victims, who may not understand the language of consent forms or the purpose of the tests, or may feel coerced to consent. That makes the situation extremely challenging, but not impossible.

Boys rescued in Mexico after being trafficked as prostitutes. Photo by Jodi Cobb.
Boys rescued in Mexico after being trafficked as prostitutes. Photo by Jodi Cobb.

In 2004, José Lorente, a geneticist at the University of Grenada, started a foundation called DNA-Prokids with the mission of building DNA databases that would help find missing children. The organization has since sent thousands of free DNA testing kits to authorities in 16 countries, preventing (according to the New York Times) 200 illegal adoptions and reuniting 550 children with their families. For example, Brenda Corado, a Guatemalan, found her daughter Angela thanks to DNA testing. As the Times reported:

Ms. Corado had been walking on the street with Angela, then 21 days old, when two men got out of a car, snatched the baby from her arms and beat her until she passed out. What the men intended to do with the child is unclear. But Dr. Lorente believes that they probably intended to make money putting the child up for adoption.

Two months later, however, an infant girl was abandoned at a Christian television station in Guatemala and, using DNA analysis, the police were able to identify that baby as Angela.

Some of the samples collected by DNA-Prokids are analyzed at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth — the same group that’s collaborating with the Dallas police on the Prostitute Diversion Initiative. Katsanis focused her commentary on these two programs, she says, because they’re examples of partnerships between government and academia. The academic scientists “are holding the information, and handling it, and then returning it back to the law enforcement community,” she says.

But what Katsanis would really like to understand, she says, “is how this could be done outside of government, especially when we’re collecting from innocent people.”

Take those Texas prostitutes, who will never personally benefit from their DNA testing. The police have good reasons for this. “They have to keep a chain of custody. They have to protect those samples because those samples might become evidence,” Katsanis explains. And that’s obviously important. But if non-government parties — human rights organizations, for example — knew more about the possible uses of DNA testing, perhaps they could also get involved at the time of collection, and perhaps set up a system of analysis and storage that’s separate from law enforcement.

That’s probably a fanciful scenario, at least for now, Katsanis says. “The most challenging aspect is trying to figure out a way to infiltrate the community that is working directly with trafficked victims, for them to even be aware that this is an option.”

This comment really surprised me. Why not just reach out to the big NGOs and foundations and tell them all about DNA? “I think there’s a distrust among the care providers that DNA is a law enforcement tool and not a victim advocacy tool,” she says.

A lot of issues swirling around DNA boil down to trust, don’t they? You might trust a consumer genetics company to keep your DNA information secure, for example, or you might trust a medical center to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood. But do you trust the government with your DNA?

I asked Katsanis whether she would ever contribute a DNA sample to a U.S. government database. She replied with a swift and certain, “No,” and then told me a story about the day she gave a lecture on DNA to some police officers in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“After I lectured to them, I said, ‘What do you guys think of a universal database? Should we just put everybody in it?’,” she recalls. “They said, ‘You mean me, too?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you too.’ And they said, ‘Oh no, not at all, not ever. I don’t trust the police. I don’t trust us to not misuse that DNA’.”


Find out more about human protections and DNA (and download full case studies of the Prostitute Diversion Initiative and DNA-Prokids) at Katsanis’s group’s website.