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Correction: In an earlier version of this story we said Brian Dripps was charged and convicted for the murder of Angie Dodge. He has been charged, but not convicted. His trial is set for June 2021. NewsHour regrets the error.
Genetic genealogy, the technique millions of people are using to learn about their family history, has now become a potent tool with which law enforcement can solve crimes. But the method has major privacy implications that are prompting some critics to urge that we slow down in our adoption of it. William Brangham shares a "cautionary tale" of how one person's DNA testing can have a wide impact.
As we reported last night, genetic genealogy, the technique millions of people use to learn about their family history, has now become a potent tool for police to crack previously unsolved crimes.
Tonight, William Brangham is back to explore the growing privacy debate around this new technique and why some people are urging that we slow down.
This is part of our regular series on the Leading Edge of science and technology.
After her dad died, Brandy Jennings, like millions of Americans, used one of those DNA testing kits to learn more about him and other relatives.
Brandy Jennings, Used DNA Database:
I didn't have a close relationship with my dad, so maybe to find some family members and just kind of learn about his side, you know?
But when she got her results, she tried something new. She uploaded them to a free public DNA database to find out more about her dad's side of the family.
I uploaded it. And then it takes a few days for it to upload and analyze, and I just kind of forgot about it.
But, months later, Jennings was shocked to learn that police had used her DNA information from that public Web site, and used a technique called genetic genealogy to identify the killer in a 40-year-old cold case in Iowa.
Authorities arrested 64-year-old Jerry Lynn Burns of Manchester this morning.
Turns out the murderer was a distant, distant relative of Jennings. She thinks this new crime-fighting tool is a great thing
I mean, I think that every person that has ever died or been killed or raped or whatever deserves to have justice done.
But not everyone is so eager to have their DNA end up in a police dragnet.
Five years ago, Michael Usry Jr., largely because his father had done DNA testing, ended up in a police station in downtown New Orleans. Police suspected he'd been involved in the brutal 1996 rape and murder of an Idaho woman named Angie Dodge.
Michael Usry Jr., Arrested Due to DNA Test: In fact, almost the entire time they had me in the interrogation room with the one-way mirror and all, they really didn't want to give me any information. I kept asking questions, like, did somebody I know do something horrible?
And, finally, after maybe about an hour or two, they had to just basically go, no, we think that you — you were involved with this crime.
And I'm like, me?
Usry was targeted because investigators, using an early form of genetic genealogy, linked his father's DNA to DNA from the murder scene.
Usry's dad seemed too old to be the killer, but Michael was not. And then police learned Usry had traveled through Idaho. Plus, he made these grisly, violent low-budget films.
But Usry knew he hadn't done anything wrong.
Michael Usry Jr.:
It was almost like a dream. When it came crashing down was when they walked out of the room and the biggest state policeman that I have ever seen in my life came in with latex gloves and a cotton swab and said, I'm going to take your DNA now.
It took around a month for police to process Usry's DNA to see if it matched the DNA from the crime scene.
So, you spend three or four weeks thinking, I'm a suspect in a brutal murder.
What were those weeks like for you?
It was scary. It was really scary, those three or four weeks, just because I knew that I had not been involved in any crime.
When the DNA test results came back, it wasn't a match. Michael Usry Jr. was cleared.
New York University's Erin Murphy, who studies genetics and the law, sees Usry's ordeal as a cautionary tale. She says, remember, Michael Usry never tested his own DNA. He was ensnared because his father had. And Murphy says those decisions, made by others, cannot be undone.
Erin Murphy, New York University School of Law: You can change your phone number if someone starts harassing you. You can change your address if things get really dark. You can do a lot of credit card cancellations if things get into the wrong hands. But you can't cancel your genome. You can't edit your genome.
And, more importantly, the decisions that you make about your genomic privacy can be overridden by anybody, not only in your immediate family tree. It's not just, oh, my brother chooses to do this, but my sixth cousin I never met chose to do this.
That decision essentially erases the genetic privacy of everyone else.
Curtis Rogers created the biggest public database, called GEDmatch, that's now used by police to solve crimes.
Rogers initially built it so people like Brandy Jennings could use their DNA results to build out their family tree. But after authorities in California used GEDmatch to catch the Golden State Killer, Rogers began to slowly welcome police into the database. And, recently, a Florida judge granted a warrant on one case to let police in even more.
Curtis Rogers, Co-Founder, GEDmatch:
For some reason, people really get upset about serial killers, mass killers and serial rapists being caught. I don't know why this upsets people. But there's some…
But they're not upset about people getting caught. They're upset about somehow that they are going to be roped into an investigation, they would feel unfairly, or that their privacy would somehow be violated, right?
If they could see some of the e-mails from these families that have had some closure, I can't imagine that anyone would say it's the wrong thing to do. I can't imagine anyone saying, I don't want to help these families.
Of course I want those people, serial killers and murderers and terrible rapists, to be caught. It's becoming such a powerful crime-fighting tool. It's also kind of — it scares me, personally, because we see that it's being used for other purposes besides finding your uncle.
In my case, it's used by the police to try to link me to a crime.
Years after Michael Usry Jr. was cleared, further genetic genealogy helped authorities identify the man they believe is Angie Dodge's real killer.
A man named Brian Dripps, who was her neighbor, was charged with rape and murder and will go on trial in 2021.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
Watch the Full Episode
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Nsikan Akpan is the digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
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