The Spotlight: Genetic genealogy brings justice to cold case victims and their families

The Spotlight: Genetic genealogy brings justice to cold case victims and their families

More cold cases from decades ago are being solved using DNA, and more killers who may have gotten away with murder are being convicted using genetic genealogy.

Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing, combined with traditional genealogy, to help identify ancestors and family members. Genetic genealogy is different from traditional forensics in investigations in that it relies on public information from databases such as 23AndMe and AncestryDNA, while forensics uses material from crime scenes which was analyzed in the laboratory.

A Washington state resident was the first person in the United States to be convicted of murder using genetic genealogy.

William Talbott, 56, was arrested in 2018 in connection with the double homicide of Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and Jay Cook, 20, a young Canadian couple who disappeared while visiting Seattle in November 1987 . .

A week after they disappeared, Van Cuylenborg’s body was found dumped in Skagit County – she had been raped and shot in the head. Cook’s remains were found in Snohomish County on Thanksgiving that year.

Their murders remained unsolved until 2018, when a Parabon genetic genealogist was able to use a DNA profile of Talbott’s sperm to construct a family tree from public ancestry databases.

“He was certainly never a suspect. There was no reason for him to be suspected. He had no connection to the victims,” ​​said Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Forever witness”. Humes was living in Seattle when Talbott’s trial began in 2019. He watched the court proceedings and was drawn to the case.

“It’s interesting that he lived a very isolated life. He wasn’t present on any social media. He disguised his real address when he filled out forms,” ​​Humes said.

But as Talbott and so many other killers have discovered in recent years, all it takes is one family member curious about their origins to put them in jail.

“The only thing that connected him to this was the fact that his distant relatives, well not so distant, second cousins ​​​​or their equivalent relatives, did for fun a home DNA test to trace their ancestry. “, described Humes.

Last December, an appeals court overturned Talbott’s conviction, but it had nothing to do with the DNA evidence — the appeals court cited juror bias.

Snohomish County prosecutors have appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court and are awaiting their decision.

If the overturned conviction stands, Talbott will still face a new trial. He remains locked up while the decision goes through the courts.

“Science and good old-fashioned policing are making it harder and harder for these disturbed individuals to live in the shadows,” said Laura Baanstra, Cook’s sister, who spoke at the event. from a press conference when Talbott was announced as a suspect.

Both Cook’s and Van Cuylenborg’s families have publicly supported the use of DNA databanks for law enforcement purposes. Humes also points out that every time you take an ancestry test, you’re essentially crowdsourcing to solve crimes without even knowing it.

“I think we should have a national conversation about the future, whether these databases should remain in private hands, which is unusual for a forensic database, or whether there should be a public project to create a law enforcement genealogy database. . This conversation is just beginning,” Humes said.

Watch the full episode of The Spotlight to see other cases, not just murder cases, where genetic genealogy solves the case or brings detectives one step closer.

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