UK police could use the same genealogy DNA techniques used in California to track down the ‘Golden State Killer’ according to one of Britain’s top forensic experts.
Professor Denise Syndercombe Court, who is Professor of Forensic Genetics at Kings College in London said there are certainly ethical and privacy issues, but if it decided that their use is ‘proportionate and likely to help’, officers would get a green light.
Detectives in California managed to catch Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, after they uploaded crime scene DNA onto a public genetic genealogical database, GEDmatch, and found a match to one of his relatives.
DeAngelo, who is a former police officer, is suspected of killing 13 people and raping almost 50 women during the 1970s and 1980s.
Professor of Forensic Genetics Denise Syndercombe Court of Kings College in London, pictured, said UK police would seek advice from ethics experts before using a database
Joseph DeAngelo (left), the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer (sketch, right), was arrested on Tuesday, after investigators used a DNA ancestry website to identify him
DeAngelo was arrested at his home in Citrus Heights (above) on Tuesday after DNA linked him to crimes attributed to the Golden State Killer from the 1970s and 80s
According to Professor Sydercombe Court, this would produce an ethical dilemma as the family member would not have explicitly consented for their DNA to be used in such a way.
Officers in California did not need a court order to access the GEDmatch database because it is publicly available. The database has around one million members.
Detectives used the information to narrow down the list of suspects and secured a ‘clandestine DNA sample’ from DeAngelo from a disposable cup – which provided a match to the original crime scene.
In Britain, more than 200 police investigations have used familial DNA searches of the UK’s National DNA database which contains more than 5.8 profiles.
Between 2002 and 2011, such searches in the UK were able to identify 41 perpetrators or suspects.
Professor Sydercombe Court told MailOnline: ‘I would think the Chief Constable would talk to the Forensic Regulator, or the Biometrics Commissioner if they were going to do something like that.
‘The decision may be made then and there, but if either of them think that it is something that will need a policy decision in the future then they may put it before the ethics group [Forensics Regulations or the Biometrics Commissioner] to look at further.
‘There are things that are initiated by police – for example using photographs of interesting parties to see if they can be found at an event – that the public might question – and the government may seek some guidance on its proportional use.
‘I think the purpose would be about advising ministers on the issues and then it would be up to the minister to determine the policy – they could completely ignore the group’s suggestions.’
Lorry driver Michael Little, left, died after a brick was thrown through his cab from a motorway bridge on the M3 by Craig Harman, right. In 2004, Harman was the first person in the world to be convicted using familial DNA after police found a relative’s profile on the national database
Police found Harman’s DNA on a brick he hurled at Mr Little’s truck smashing its windscreen. Officers matched that DNA to one of Harman’s relatives who was on the National DNA database and used the evidence to convict him of Mr Little’s manslaughter
According to Professor Sydercombe Court, the police would likely want to know the number of UK profiles on the database they are searching to determine how useful it would be to an investigation.
She said: ‘One of the main ethical considerations is whether conducting a familial search is proportionate and likely to help with the investigation.’
‘People will have uploaded their DNA to these databases in the hope of finding a distant relative. They will not have explicitly consented for their data to be used for other purposes.
‘If someone is looking for a relative, do they look at the terms and conditions of the website or service and how this private information is stored and kept.
‘In the UK, we try and avoid revealing the private information of people without people’s consent. If you take a piece of DNA it is possible to determine whether someone is more predisposed to developing a certain disease. That is private information.
‘People may be happy if their DNA is shared to be used for a good reason, such as helping medical research. But they will be less inclined to share if it will be used by an insurance company who identifies them and hits them with a bigger premium.
‘In the UK, there is a very secure DNA database and a small number of people have access to it. If a crime scene DNA sample is taken, there is currently a 60 per cent chance of a hit. The crime scene DNA material is held by a scientist and the police do not have a copy of it. There is a closer link between scientists and police in the US.
According to Professor Syndercombe Court, police are able to use familial DNA in the UK and have had great success.
James Lloyd, known as the ‘Shoe Rapist’ was jailed for 15 years in 2006 after his sister had DNA taken following her arrest on suspicion of drink driving. Her arrest and DNA sample narrowed down the search for the suspect
‘The main problem is about narrowing down the number of potential matches. If you have a match to a third or a fourth cousin you could be talking about hundreds or thousands of people. You still have to find the correct person from that list.
‘In the Golden State Killer case, the police narrowed down the number of suspects by age. They managed to get a clandestine saliva sample from the suspect and this matched the original crime scene sample. Then it is a case of arresting the suspect and getting a sample from them and see if that matches with the original and clandestine evidence.’
‘A familial DNA match helps narrow down the list of potential suspects. Before DNA, police would have to rule out hundreds of people by other means. Now many are