As of October 2019, genetic genealogy had been used to solve roughly 50 rapes and homicides across 29 states, including the infamous Golden State Killer. Family Tree DNA defines genetic genealogy as “the use of DNA testing to determine relationships between individuals, find their genetic matches and discover one’s ancestry.”
Cold case law enforcement detectives have become increasingly reliant upon data provided by online genetic genealogy websites in their second look at cases left unsolved by initial, conventional investigation techniques. This law enforcement use has created privacy concerns for websites like GEDmatch, which offers the general public free access to DNA profiles that may help people find their relatives.
In the wake of the apprehension of the Golden State Killer, many public users became both concerned and angry that law enforcement was using their personal information without their permission. GEDmatch moved quickly to close that door, changing its terms of service to exclude all law enforcement searches.
Ancestry Websites Sell Private Information
Family Tree DNA, however, took a different approach. This “direct-to-consumer” company allows law enforcement access to its DNA database, but at a cost and with limited results.
Last October Colleen Fitzpatrick, a supporter of direct-to-consumer companies and co-founder of DNA Doe Protect, told NBC News:
“In the interest of public safety, don’t you want to make it easy for people to be caught? Police really want to do their job. They’re not after you. They just want to make you safe.”
Two Orlando, Florida detectives were not trying to make Eleanor Holmes feel safe one morning in October of 2018 as she and her husband prepared to leave their residence in Valdosta, Georgia.
Deceptive DNA Investigations
In a February 22, 2020 NBC News report, Holmes said she discovered the detectives standing in her yard just inside the front gate. Cordially, the detectives informed Holmes that they were trying to “identify someone” found dead years earlier and they hoped to make identification through “DNA and genealogical records” of possible relatives.
The detectives informed Eleanor that they had already secured DNA samples from her sister and aunt. Eleanor knew the detectives had already visited her sister. She decided to give the detectives a DNA sample (taken on the spot in her front yard with a mouth swab) because she had a niece living in Orlando she had not heard from in more than a decade.
The detectives lied to Eleanor Holmes.
They were not trying to identify a deceased person, but rather were investigating Eleanor’s son, 39-year-old Benjamin Holmes, Jr., for the 2001 murder of a 25-year-old college student named Christine Franke who was killed in her Florida home. The detectives used Eleanor’s DNA, obtained through a ruse, to tie Benjamin Holmes to that killing.
The detectives were not disturbed about their deceitful actions.
In fact, they praised their actions to show that they “do everything we can to solve crimes.” The Franke family joined in the praise, saying the Benjamin Holmes’s arrest gave them “long-needed answers” and prevented anyone else from being harmed by the accused killer.
The NBC News report said Eleanor and her husband are in their 70s.
Eleanor would not have given their DNA to the police had she known the detectives were investigating her son for a cold case murder.
Investigators Lie to Relatives of Suspect
Attorneys for Benjamin Holmes, Jr. have challenged the police misconduct involved in the DNA collection process, including the detectives telling the same lie to at least a dozen of Eleanor’s relatives in both Florida and George in efforts to secure DNA samples from them.
“It was just deception, not only to me but all my other family members, because they know what they were looking for when they took the DNA,” Eleanor told NBC News. “They weren’t looking for someone in our family that had been killed, or that was dead. They were looking totally to find out whether or not our DNC coincided with Benjamin’s. That’s what they were looking for.”
One thing is certain about crime detection: the police will corrupt each and every effective law enforcement tool they develop in order to solve criminal wrongdoing.
These two corrupt Orlando detectives took advantage of the basically “unregulated” technology of genetic genealogy to solve this one crime. Their deceitful actions will probably lead to new regulations, either by the courts or legislatures, on how the police can utilize genetic genealogy to solve crimes.
Police May Use Deception During Interrogation of Suspect
It is established constitutional law that the police may lie to a suspect during an interrogation and/or in efforts to secure a confession.
But lying to an ordinary, law-abiding citizen in order to invade the privacy of their body to secure evidence of criminal wrongdoing against someone else is a different ball park, with different constitutional rules.
Although DNA collection is by no means settled constitutional law, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution does guarantee an individual the right to be secure from governmental intrusions of their person (including a body cavity).
Any analysis of this constitutional issue must begin with this question: Is lying to a non-criminal suspect in order to obtain DNA evidence that may implicate a familial criminal suspect police misconduct?
We say in the strongest possible terms that it is another form of police misconduct.