Using Genetic Genealogy To Identify Unknown Crime Victims, Sometimes Decades Later DNA combined with the study of family history has been used to solve high-profile cold cases such as the Golden State Killer. Now, volunteers are using the technique to identify crime victims.
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Using Genetic Genealogy To Identify Unknown Crime Victims, Sometimes Decades Later

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Using Genetic Genealogy To Identify Unknown Crime Victims, Sometimes Decades Later

Using Genetic Genealogy To Identify Unknown Crime Victims, Sometimes Decades Later

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Law enforcement officials across the country have relied on DNA to help catch criminals for years. Now a volunteer group is applying it in a different way. They are using DNA and genealogy to help identify unknown crime victims, so-called John and Jane Does. From member station WBOI in Fort Wayne, Ind., Barb Anguiano reports.

BARBARA ANGUIANO, BYLINE: In 1988, John Miller murdered 8-year-old April Tinsley in Fort Wayne, Ind. Police at the scene recovered DNA samples, but they weren't able to do much with them back then. Fast-forward to last spring when Fort Wayne investigators were finally able to process the collected DNA samples from a 30-year-old crime scene and find genetic matches to two brothers living near Fort Wayne. After an exact DNA match, they arrested and charged John Miller, who was convicted in December and is now serving an 80-year prison sentence. The technology that helped them find Miller is being used by genealogists to identify crime victims across the country. Margaret Press helped set up the group DNA Doe Project. She says her motivation came from helping adoptees find their birth parents.

MARGARET PRESS: Because in both cases, the parents are not known or anything about the ancestry, and once you know the parents, you can figure out where the Doe fits in the tree.

ANGUIANO: Last year, her group helped police in Ohio identify Marcia Sossoman King, whose remains were found in a ditch nearly 40 years ago.

PRESS: You really need to look at all the ancestors and all the cousins in order to narrow down on the actual person.

ANGUIANO: Working with law enforcement, DNA Doe was able to locate one of King's first cousins using a public database called GEDmatch. That's where people upload their DNA information in hopes of extending their family trees. Here's how it works. When you buy a DNA test kit like 23andMe or Ancestry, the companies also allow you to download your genetic code, which you can then upload to GEDmatch. GEDmatch gathers data from lots of DNA websites. Press says access to private databases like 23andMe or Ancestry would make the search process much quicker. But private databases are closed to law enforcement. Mark McKenna practices privacy law and teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He says those restrictions make sense.

MARK MCKENNA: On the one hand, you get this kind of information that has a lot of potentially positive uses, right? It lets you solve crimes. But there's always - there are dark sides to all of these things. And, you know, so most people who work in the privacy area would say there are questions about, like, how do you collect the data in the first place?

ANGUIANO: McKenna says right now, people are enthralled with how easy this is to do. And searching databases is increasingly common for hints into the lives of John and Jane Does. So far, the group has helped identify six people that are among the thousands that go missing each year. In Steuben County, Ind., not far from the Tinsley and King cases, detective Chris Emerick is heading an investigation to find the identity of a Jane Doe found in 1999.

CHRIS EMERICK: We get really hopeful. We're hoping, hey, maybe we finally identified her. Maybe we can finally put this case to rest and give the family closure.

ANGUIANO: Emerick says his motivation comes from the thought that if she was his relative, he'd want to know what happened to her. For NPR News, I'm Barb Anguiano in Fort Wayne.

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