A DNA Database Helped Find A Suspected Serial Killer

How Is Your Privacy Affected?

More than a million Americans are sharing their DNA with ancestry websites. That helped the cops find the Golden State Killer. Good police work, but troubling implications for privacy.


Stephen Mercer, lawyer and law professor who has worked for two decades DNA forensics and civil liberties, former chief attorney of the forensics division for Maryland’s public defender’s officers.

Sam Stanton, senior writer for the Sacramento Bee. He’s been covering the story of the arrest of the Golden State Killer. (@StantonSam)

CeCe Moore, genetic genealogist and founder of DNA Detectives. Member of the research and production team of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” (@CeCeLMoore)

Jennifer Wagner, lawyer and ethicist expert in issues around DNA databanks and how they’re used. Associate director for Bioethics Research and a professor at the Center for Translational Bioethics and Health Care Policy at Geisinger health system. (@DNAlawyer)

The Sacramento Bee: “Stop taking DNA from East Area Rapist suspect, defense attorney asks court” — “East Area Rapist suspect Joseph James DeAngelo was back in court Wednesday morning for a brief motion hearing involving a sealed search warrant in the case.

His public defender, Diane Howard, said the motion asks the court to enjoin the district attorney from taking further DNA, major case prints or body photographs from DeAngelo. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Sweet, who did not allow cameras in the courtroom, said he needs more time to review the request and put the matter over to 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

DeAngelo, 72, appeared in court in a wheelchair again, as he did for his first court appearance Friday in the case. In Wednesday’s hearing, he appeared more alert than on Friday, when he could barely be heard as he whispered answers to the judge, but he did not speak and was wheeled out of court with his lawyer.”

Vox: “DNA profiles from ancestry websites helped identify the Golden State Killer suspect” — “Investigators searched family trees generated through the public profiles, looking for plausible leads. After ‘a long period of time,’ a break in the case finally came together incredibly swiftly — beginning last Thursday, April 19, when investigators pinpointed DeAngelo as a plausible suspect. They then placed him under surveillance, collected a sample of his discarded DNA, and had a match by the following day, the evening of April 20. They then collected a second sample, confirmed that match by Monday night, and arrested DeAngelo the next day, the afternoon of April 24.”

The trail of the Golden State Killer – linked to more than 50 rapes and 12 murders — had gone cold decades ago. Then investigators used a public genealogy database to identify him and bring him to justice. Impressive police work, but with the growing popularity of genetic testing services like Ancestry.com, it raised alarms about privacy.

This hour, On Point: your genetic profile – who has it – and what they’re doing with it.

– Anthony Brooks