by Seth Augenstein
Forensic genealogy to identify criminal offenders through GEDmatch and related databases would be prohibited in Maryland, according to the intent of a new bill pending in that state’s legislature.
Proponents of the ban point to civil-rights concerns, while opponents of the bill point to the case-breaking potential use of databases through which people voluntarily make genetic information public.
“I’ve been unable to square how such a (genealogy) search would not violate the Fourth Amendment, nor Article 26 of our (Maryland’s) Declaration of Rights,” said Delegate Charles Sydnor III (D-44B), the bill’s sponsor, in a Tuesday legislative hearing. “Don’t get me wrong—I want to see unsolved crimes resolved and perpetrators prosecuted as well.”
“This bill is an error—this bill is a mistake,” countered John Fitzgerald, chief of police for Chevy Chase.
The bill was introduced earlier this month, and came up for a first hearing this week. At the Tuesday hearing, the sponsor Sydnor cited U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent in the landmark 2013 split highest court decision in Maryland v. King, in which Scalia inveighed that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures “must prevail.”
“Suspicionless searches are never allowed—if the purpose is just ordinary crime-solving,” he said.
Fitzgerald and three other law enforcement officers said GEDmatch’s voluntary uploads in no way constituted an “expectation of privacy.” Genealogy needs to happen, they said, citing the successes already realized in solving a murder and a series of rapes in the state.
“Marylanders want this to happen … they need this to happen,” Fitzgerald added. “It narrows the haystack so we can find the needle.”
Opponents of the bill banning forensic genealogy testify at a Maryland legislative hearing on Tuesday. From left: Capt. Michael Wahl of the Montgomery County Police Department; Major Ross Passman, of the Anne Arundel County Police; Steve Armentrout, CEO of Parabon NanoLabs; and John Fitzgerald, chief of the Chevy Chase Police Department. (Screengrab courtesy of Md. Legislature)
Maryland is the only state that has banned familiar searching (FS), a way to comb federal and state databases for relatives of unknown offenders who left DNA at a crime scene.
Maryland is also the site of two of the historic runs of arrests made through leads provided by genetic genealogy—and in particular GEDmatch. Marlon Michael Alexander, a 39-year-old man from Germantown, was arrested in September in a series of cold-case rapes dating back to 2007. And Fred Frampton Jr., now 32, was arrested and charged with a 2010 home invasion and shooting that left the victim a quadriplegic, and whose death in 2015 was ruled a homicide.
Both crimes scenes yielded DNA of the perpetrators—and the searches through GEDmatch yielded relatives allowing family trees to be constructed leading to the suspects.
“This cold case may have never been solved without the use of genetic genealogy,” said Major Ross Passman, of the Anne Arundel County Police, at the hearing, referencing the Frampton arrest.
The use of forensic genealogy started several years ago, with the work of such pioneers as Colleen Fitzpatrick and Barbara Rae-Venter. Fitzpatrick helped identify the suspect in the “Phoenix Canal Murders” through a Y-STR search leading to the arrest of Bryan Patrick Miller in January 2015. Rae-Venter made an unprecedented breakthrough in the identification of the killer responsible for one of America’s notorious cold cases, the Bear Brook Murders in New Hampshire, in 2016 and 2017; eventually the “Chameleon” killer believed responsible for the four bodies found in barrels in the New Hampshire woods was identified as Terry Peder Rasmussen—also through Rae-Venter’s forensic genealogy.
Rae-Venter also worked the genetic trail through GEDmatch that led to the alleged Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, back in April. That high-profile arrest created a tidal wave of interest in using the technique for cold-case investigation where other traditional leads have reached dead ends. One of the players to get involved providing the analysis was Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company that had been focusing on phenotyping—face-image approximation based on SNP analysis of unknown suspects’ DNA. The company hired CeCe Moore, a genealogist known from TV appearances, and they undertook a genetic genealogy program credited with dozens of assists leading to arrests in some of the nation’s most notorious murders and rapes in various states.
"GEDmatch users who allow their DNA to be openly compared for relatedness have agreed to terms of service that explicitly allow law enforcement use," said Steve Armentrout, the CEO of Parabon. "Users have complete control over thwhether their data is included in GEDmatch and whether is is publicly comparable."
The pending Maryland bill would seemingly outlaw any search not intended to directly match genetic markers from crime scenes with those legally on file in government databases. According to the policy note in the legislature, it would potentially entail prison time for those persons “willfully failing to destroy a DNA sample for which notification has been sent stating that the DNA sample has been destroyed or for which destruction has been ordered.”