What Does the Future Hold for Investigative Genealogy

Interviews written and condensed by

Carol Bingham, Tara Luther, Promega

Across the United States, and increasingly internationally, detectives are closing cases that have long since grown cold using investigative genealogy. Killers and other predators who have managed to escape justice due to a lack of leads are now finding themselves behind bars.

Investigative genealogy relies heavily on open-source DNA databases, such as GEDMatch, where users upload their DNA raw data files. Originally intended for use by genealogy hobbyists, the site has been a gold mine for investigators. Once they upload DNA profiles of suspects taken from crime scenes, they are then able to search for close familial matches and try to build the suspect’s family tree. Once the tree has been built, investigators are able to uncover the identity of the suspect, giving them a lead in the case.

Since 2018, over 55 cases have been closed, and several John and Jane Does have been identified using investigative genealogy techniques, but the future of the technique is unclear.

On November 17, 2018, a 71 year-old woman was attacked while she was practicing the organ in a church meetinghouse. CeCe Moore, an investigative genealogist, was asked to assist with the case. Knowing that using the GEDMatch database to solve an assault case would violate their terms of service, she initially declined. With express permission from Curtis Rogers, founder of GEDMatch, investigators were allowed to use the database to identify the attacker.

Facing public backlash for violating his website’s terms of service, Rogers quickly updated GEDMatch policy to require users to opt-in to allowing their profiles to be used for investigative purposes. Where there were once almost 2 million searchable profiles, 20,000 remained as of June 9, 2019.

Though users continue to opt-in, where does this leave the future of investigative genealogy? CeCe Moore told CNN, “We can be sure there are hundreds of cases that would have been solved in the coming months or year that very well won’t be now. People will die. It sounds dramatic, but it’s actually true.”

What does the future hold for forensic labs interested in investigative genealogy? No one knows for sure, but we interviewed a panel of experts to get their opinion.

Interested in learning more about investigative genealogy?

Jody Hynds will chair a workshop entitled Family Ties: Using Genetic Genealogy to Solve Violent Crime. Attendees will develop a holistic understanding of investigative genetic genealogy and receive material that enables them to educate their respective communities on this revolutionary tool. The workshop will also enable attendees to develop a more comprehensive understanding of legal issues surrounding genetic genealogy and best practices to balance public safety with privacy concerns.

Workshop Schedule:
Monday September 23, 2019
8:30 am—5:00 pm

Diahan Southard will chair a workshop entitled Can You Solve Your Case Using Genetic Genealogy? “The workshop will be a hands-on case study from start to finish,” says Southard, “so attendees will learn about what kinds of cases qualify for the use of genetic genealogy, as well as the step-by-step process involved.”

Workshop Schedule:

Thursday September 26, 2019

1:00—4:00 pm

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read the interviews


Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press

Co-founders of the DNA Doe Project, an all-volunteer non-profit organization, which has identified over 11 John and Jane Does

Photo Credit: Sarah Press Photography

Diahan Southard

DNA Eyewitness, a company providing educational opportunities for law enforcement to learn how to apply DNA and family history in their investigations

Allison Nunes

Chief Operating Officer, DNA Labs International

Melinde Lutz-Byrne

Board Certified Genealogist, Consulting Forensic Genealogist, and Founder of the Genealogical Research Program at Boston University