I ran across a column a last night about how police can use those commercial DNA company data bases to try to solve crimes. You know, the ones with the cute commercials with the guy who thinks he is of a certain ethnicity and by the end of the commercial he’s wearing lederhosen? Or somebody ends up playing the bagpipes. I love bagpipes, so I don’t mind that, as long as they do it well. So people wanting to connect with their past, send in their DNA, and find out their origins, or some of their origins.
I’ve never sent my DNA into anything. I just sort of thought well, once someone has your DNA, they have your DNA. It’s a bell that can’t be un-rung. But I thought the column interesting, so I posted it to FaceBook. I got some interesting comments. One person pointed out they will delete your profile if you ask. Another pointed out that it’s like NICS deleting the information. I would agree with that assessment, somebody else commented Orwell lives. Indeed. And what could be wrong?
Well, what a co-inky-dink! I happen to watch a TV show tonight, 48 Hours I believe. Guess what it was about! DNA. Well, I must watch this.
The case involves the murder of Angie Raye Dodge. A young, beautiful woman not even yet 20 years old. She had moved out from her Mom’s home and got her very own apartment a few weeks before she was murdered in Idaho Falls on June 13, 1996. She hadn’t shown up for work and one of her friends went to check on her and found the body and called police. Idaho Falls having a small town feel, where neighbors likely know each other was horrified. The pressure was on to catch the killer who stabbed Angie to death and cut her throat. As I recall, the report said there was no sign or forced entry, she was found with her throat cut, partially naked, raped and someone had ejaculated near the body. The sample would be known as a pristine profile, meaning one man, to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. So what could go wrong?
All the locals were checked, no matches. Her mother Carol, was desperate to find the killer, so in 2014 she called Dr. Greg Hampikian,and said the police can’t find my daughter’s killer. So he got involved. Dr. Hampikian is a DNA expert. The police had DNA, they just didn’t have any local matches, and there were no matches in CODIS, the Combined DNA Indexing System. Carol wanted to use a new DNA technique called Familial DNA matching. Meaning, ok, it’s not you, but maybe someone in your family. In other words, sort of a “close enough for government work” plan. Some states, Maryland and DC have laws against doing familial DNA criminal data base searches. Idaho forbids doing familial DNA searches of it’s criminal data base. So Dr. Hampikian, proposed something, using “public” data base searches. Such as those used by Ancestry and 23andMe to do the familial DNA search. What could go wrong with that?
Dr. Hampikian is probably a brilliant DNA researcher, but I think he’s a tad bit on the drama diva side. So they did their search and got a hit, 34 out of 35 markers. Which sounds like a lot. It was deemed a solid lead. It came back to the family of Michael Usry. Now lets look at how the data base got Michael Usry’s DNA in the first place. He had submitted it as part of a church genealogy project. Voluntarily.
Seemed like it shouldn’t be a big deal, I mean, it’s a church genealogy project, not a poster on the Post Office wall. What could go wrong with that?
The cops chose to use a lab linked to a private collection of genetic genealogical data called the Sorenson Database (now owned by Ancestry.com), which claims it’s “the foremost collection of genetic genealogy data in the world.” The reason the Sorenson Database can make such an audacious claim is because it has obtained its more than 100,000 DNA samples and documented multi-generational family histories from “volunteers in more than 100 countries around the world.” Some of these volunteers were encouraged by the Mormon Church—well-known for its interest in genealogy—to provide their genetic material to the database. Sorenson promised volunteers their genetic data would only be used for “genealogical services, including the determination of family migration patterns and geographic origins” and would not be shared outside Sorenson. Its consent form states:
The only individuals who will have access to the codes and genealogy information will be the principal investigator and the others specifically authorized by the Principal Investigator, including the SMGF research staff.
Despite this promise, Sorenson’s vast collection of data, like data in other public DNA databases, is available online and may be searched by anyone with “DNA results obtained from a commercial lab.” This means, without a warrant or court order, investigators were able to run the crime scene DNA against Sorenson’s private genealogical DNA data.
So how did Chris Tapp become a suspect?? Well, a friend of his Ben Hobbs was arrested in Nevada for raping a woman at gun point. So they looked into Ben’s friends and came up with Chris Tapp. Then we have our second variety of what could go wrong? The first being using familial DNA.
Chris was interrogated something 9 like times in 23 days and underwent 7 polygraphs. His story changed six times. Yeah, I realize people can change their stories, but apparently this was more than that. In some of the video clips it does appear the police are leading him to the answers they want. It went to trial and he was convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to 30 years to life. Remember, this guy had no DNA match at the murder scene or any other physical evidence present.
Michael Usry, 18 years after the murder has two Idaho Falls Detectives and Louisiana State Trooper show up at his house saying they’d like a word. He goes downtown with them, has no clue what this is all about so he’s cooperating a bit blindly not understanding what this is all about. Then in questioning they mention the murder mystery movies he makes, very scary stuff, and by the way, it’s about a murder case in Idaho Falls, open wide were going to swab your cheek. He has no lawyer present and still not much of a clue. They take him home, drop him off at the curb bewildered and dazed. He calls a friend, who in 20 seconds of searching tells him about the Angie Dodge murder case. The 15 years before DNA his Dad submitted for the Church project has come home to roost and poop on the head of the son.
Michael was so horrified and incensed by what Ancestry had done to him, he decided to do what he does, and do a documentary on this issue. But after he met Carol Dodge, who agreed to meet with him, despite thinking someone in his family must have murdered her daughter, because, you know, DNA said so, he changes to documentary to be about Angie’s murder. Then Mike wondered why anyone would confess to a crime he now says he didn’t commit. So he met with Chris and became convinced Chris hadn’t done it. Yes, this is a bit shortened. By this time Carol is convinced Chris did not kill her daughter and wants him freed, Michael doesn’t think Chris killed Angie, and Chris has been in jail for 20 years. I mean, what could be wrong?
Then it really got good. Judges for Justice headed by a retired Superior Court judge from Washington got involved. Judge Heavey saw the tapes of the 7 polygraphs and was appalled. Polygraphs are supposed to be used to assess the credibility of the witness. That’s when the team got involved. You can read all the reports from the team members here. The one from Steve Moore is 85 pages long.
They also talk about why the judicial system and the police are sometimes hesitant to look at things from a fresh angle in cases where they may have made a mistake. But what could have gone wrong?
I’m guessing it was after 48 Hours got involved along with Judges for Justice that the Prosecuting Attorney’s office decided to offer Chris a deal. Accept the murder charge, we drop the rape charge and you have no probation, and you’re out of jail in a couple hours. Chris had seen so much go wrong, that should never have gone wrong he took the deal. Within 48 hours Carol Dodge, Michael Usry, Dr. Hampikian and others were in the courtroom. The judge in the case had to accept or reject the deal. He asked Chris if he had read every line of the document and he said he had. So how I hear this? Yeah, we sent you to prison for 20 years for a crime you didn’t commit, had nothing to do with, and if we let you out 10 years or more early and don’t put you on probation for crimes you didn’t commit, you say “no harm, no foul” and go your way. Carol Dodge says Chris is another victim of the crime. He is. As is Michael Usry who after court that day was asked by a detective to come with him. They wanted to show him a composite using new DNA technology that can make a facial sketch based on DNA. Michael said he didn’t want to look at first, thinking ‘what if it’s someone I know?” But it wasn’t. It was a face he was unfamiliar with. On July 12th of this year, Michael got a letter with a DNA report that cleared his family with 87.63% certainty that the murderer was not in their family. Wow.
Another interesting person interviewed for the show was Dr. Erin Murphy, A New York University Law professor and author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. She points out that this familial DNA raises real privacy issues of law enforcement trolling data banks to see if your brother, father are breaking the law. Consider the government’s insatiable appetite for biometric data, REAL ID and that really is a concern. Murphy points out that Usry’s family may have had nothing at all to do with the murder. She maintains that 99% of the people match to one another on a genome, that there could be a match to someone completely unrelated on the other side of the globe. It’s all dependent upon the quality of the match. So what in this case, could have gone wrong?
And actually, that is the answer. When you are dead set on seeing a situation, object or person in a certain way because you have this set of clues, this set of (DNA) data, this set of preconceived notions (it’s a AR-15 that happens to spit shotgun shells) we do ourselves and no one else any favors to insist on not considering any other possibilities.
Yes, as one person posted on my Facebook linked story, you can request that your DNA profile be deleted. I have no idea how long they would take to do that, if they actually do delete it. I suspect it’s a lot more like a NICS check and once they have it, they have it. Would the sell it? Who knows. But who would ask to have their profile deleted in the first place? I mean it’s not like Billy Bankrobber is sending his DNA in to see if he’s really a Viking or Scottish or Kenyan. It’s nice people, who want to know if they should buy lederhosen or a dreidel. They would never think 15 years down the road this is going to get my son in hot water because ___________. I mean it’s not like the government has ever used it’s (IRS) power to go after people (Joe The Plumber) or groups (The Tea Party) it doesn’t like, right? I mean, what could be wrong with that?