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Ethics Involved with Forensic DNA

Forensic DNA and Forensic Genealogical DNA are in the news with a hot break in a serial rapist case. The following news pieces feature me, the International Institute of Genealogical Studies executive director, Angela Breidenbach. They’re interesting and well done news pieces by the reporters. But what they haven’t had time to report on yet are the ethics issues that are also hotly debated in the genealogical community and legal arenas. Let’s explore those after you watch the two short videos below.

The first link is in English. The second is in Spanish. But I think you’ll catch the essence of the story in this breaking news case where genetic genealogy exploded onto the scene in this cold case. After watching, keep reading. I’m not judging the case at all. I don’t have all the details and I’m not the judge and jury. These women deserve to have their case solved and their peace restored. They deserve justice. The goal of this article is to help you think deeply about the various aspects of the broader topic involving ethics and law in genetic genealogy and criminology.

NBC New York report on capture of accused man featuring International Institute of Genealogical Studies executive director, Angela Breidenbach.

Diego Arias reports on developments in the case of a man accused of serial rape over 15 years ago. Video in Spanish.

Will vicious crimes go down with so much light being put on DNA finding perpetrators? I hope so. The danger of getting caught has often minimized crime in years/centuries past. But, there are still a ton of questions about whether the DNA is compromised or whether the genetic DNA compared against is or isn’t legal, or whether the accused person’s DNA was present along with other DNA specimens for some odd reason.

I can think of a lot more to question beyond these noted. If the man in these news pieces is guilty, then it’s good to take him off the streets. But, if there could be some issue with chain of evidence, false planting, DNA shedding from simply being at the scene… The situation becomes much more complicated each time one of the possible errors or intentional incidence occurs. I have no idea as none of that information appeared in the news as of this writing. We aren’t told the chain of custody, either. But it’s important to take multiple questions into consideration before convicting someone in the media or in court.

We, as human beings, want justice–and often revenge–for harm done. The common feeling is that someone has to pay. These legal and ethical issues are not yet solved in many places regarding Genetic DNA in criminology. Each situation has its own set of circumstances. But it’s also important to consider whether you personally want your DNA used in this manner without knowing it could be. Could your relative be falsely accused? Could you? Could someone catch and prove your relative guilty? How would that affect your choice? Labs can mix up testing, DNA can be contaminated by outside sources, DNA can transfer or still be present long after someone spent time in a place. You name it, there are potential reasons to be very, very sure you have the right person.

Is it legal in the country or jurisdiction where the alleged crime took place to use genetic DNA in forensic investigation? Be thoughtful. Consider the justice for the victims. Consider the way media and/or society condemn anyone close to someone accused. Remember to think beyond “both sides”. Think of the possibility there may be many sides to an issue. Also consider that one set of circumstances or even type of crime may not equal another. Laws may be vastly opposite of what you’re used to where you live.

Laws specify that crimes are different in different countries. A crime in one place may be nothing in another. Recent news tells of a toddler being condemned to life in prison in a certain country because his parents had a Bible in their possession. It could have been a Koran or Buddhist tome. The type of faith book wasn’t the issue. Faith is not allowed outside of certain regime teachings in some places. Three generations convicted for life for owning a faith book. Possessing a faith book or material is a crime in that country, along with any book from outside of the system that introduces ideas unwanted by the leadership.

DNA can be used to trace whether you wore a shirt or touched an item like a book. What book would you go to prison for life for owning if your DNA were found in its pages? My great-great-grandfather, my great grandfather, my grandfather have all left visible fingerprints on the pages of a circuit-riding preacher’s Bible. And, so have I. I’ve touched those prints on the pages imagining those men who lived before me preaching from that book. Riding a horse around the country to talk to people? That hardship and commitment impressed and amazed me. I touched those fingerprints in awe of their existence over 150 years later. Just because I own that Bible as an artefact, I know one country that would send even my grandchildren to prison for life. I own many faith-based historical documents handed down through my family. My DNA is all over them. The laws of one place differ from the laws of another. How should genetic DNA be used? How should or shouldn’t it apply to legal matters?

I hope the victims find the justice they need in this serial crime case. I hope violent crimes stop forever. I hope they found the guy. From these small bits and pieces, we still do not have enough information to know if this particular man will be found guilty. Time will tell. I’ll definitely be watching for the resulting judgment.

But what if he’s not guilty? What if he can defend/prove he did not commit the crimes? Or if the prosecution cannot prove he did the crime? Which is the proper judicial action, “innocent until proven guilty”, in US court system.

If someone is innocent, but they were tried by public opinion, then another life is destroyed through the process without justice being appropriately applied and the bad guy is still out there. I hope for the sake of all involved that they have the right guy and that those hurt will feel safer from now on.

In the meantime, Genetic DNA research and discovery must be handled with respect as we wade through the many questions worldwide access to individual DNA raises.

Angela Breidenbach, PLCGS, is the executive director at the International Institute of Genealogical Studies, an author, speaker, and professional genealogist. Learn more about her at

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