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Golden State Killer arrest is cause for celebration — and some concern over DNA privacy

The man believed to be the Golden State Killer -- a serial murderer and rapist whose crimes terrorized California in the 1970s and ‘80s -- was arrested last week. While considered a huge success for law enforcement, his arrest also raises questions about the unique method used to find him. William Brangham talks with Anne Marie Schubert, district attorney for Sacramento County.

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    Last week, investigators in California arrested a man they believe is the Golden State Killer, a serial murderer and rapist whose crimes terrorized the state in the 1970s and '80s.

    As William Brangham reports, the arrest is considered a huge success for law enforcement, but it also raises questions about the unique method used to find the suspect.


    This is the man accused of being the Golden State Killer, 72-year-old former police officer Joseph DeAngelo, as he appeared in a Sacramento court last Friday.

    The Golden State Killer has been linked to at least 12 murders, 50 rapes and a string of burglaries throughout California. Variously known as the East Area Rapist and the original Night Stalker, these were brutal, meticulously planned crimes that spanned numerous California counties between 1976 and 1986.

  • MAN:

    The police are saying lock up tight. Sacramento's infamous East Area Rapist may still be in town.


    As the crimes escalated, and police couldn't find a suspect, Californians grew increasingly terrified.

    Investigator Paul Holes, who tracked the Golden State Killer for decades, described the relief many felt with this arrest.


    Right now, the biggest rewards that I have gotten is when I have called the handful of victims that I have had some relationship with. Very rewarding to at least hear the relief in their voices that they can now kind of relax, in a way.

    This guy is behind bars. He is never getting out. And some of these victims had thought, he is going to come back and get me. So they lived in that fear.


    DeAngelo's arrest has been cause for celebration, but it's also raising questions over how he was located and whether law enforcement has opened a Pandora's box with new DNA technology.

    Investigators took DNA of the suspected killer from an old crime scene, and they uploaded it to a public genealogy database called GEDmatch. It's the kind that people use to track down distant relatives or trace their own ancestry.

    On that site, investigators were able find what seemed to be a distant relative of the suspected killer, a great-great-great-grandparent from the 1800s.

    Then, investigators followed the dozens of family trees branching off this one grandparent, and, using census data, old newspapers and death records, were able to home in on two men who were in California at the time of the attacks.

    A final DNA test, done on a discarded piece of trash, confirmed that the second man, Joseph DeAngelo, was the suspect.

    Sacramento County district attorney Anne Marie Schubert cheered the technique used to identify the suspect.


    The answer was and always was going to be in the DNA.


    Joseph DeAngelo returns to court on May 14. He has yet to enter a plea.

    For more on how the Golden State suspect was apprehended, I'm joined now by the woman who will prosecute him. Anne Marie Schubert is the district attorney for Sacramento county.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.


    Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.


    So, this is obviously an enormous moment for California and for Sacramento in particular.

    And I wonder if you could just take us back, for people who didn't live through it or weren't in California at the time, just what it was like in the late '70s and early '80s for people living with these constant fear of these crimes going on.



    I think it's almost difficult to explain to folks what it was like. I mean, I know it because I grew up here at the time, and I was 12 when it first started to happen.

    And for really anybody that lived in Sacramento at the time, it was — it changed us. It changed our community. It went from a very, I would say, innocent town where people left their doors unlocked, they left their windows open, they knew nothing about self-defense, anything like, to a time when it happened so often, and it was so much on the news, that it wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen again; it was a matter of when.

    And so it really terrorized this community. It's almost difficult to explain. It's almost like living through an earthquake and trying to explain that process of what it's like to go through that. But it really did change this community in many, many ways.


    Obviously, you used a very unique technique to finally identify him. And I explained a little bit of this, how you went about this, beforehand.

    But could you tell us a little bit more about, how did you come up with this idea? How did you execute this?


    Well, I don't want to take credit for the idea. There was a team of folks that worked on it. And so my credit, I guess, is just kind of making sure that we had a team approach going to this.

    But, you know, it was essentially using innovative technology. I think everybody knows now that it was using some genealogy sites and using the DNA to the best of our ability, and, as I said, a group of folks building the trees of this genealogy, which was very, very labor-intensive, very, very long process, but, ultimately, it led to Mr. DeAngelo.


    Obviously, everyone in California seems very glad, if he is in fact the killer, to have this man in custody, but some have raised concerns that law enforcement dipping into these big DNA databases is some form of overreach.

    And I wonder, what do you say to that concern?


    Well, I think what's important for people to remember is that this is and has been one of the most significant unsolved serial rape-murder cases of all time here in California, and the level of violent crime, the number of crimes.

    You know, I understand there's a conversation folks want to have about privacy and things like that, but there is a balance here. And there's this, what I would call this public safety balance. And so I'm sure that this process will play out not only in public debate, but also in a courtroom.

    And, ultimately, we're confident that, at the end of the day, when the sample was collected from, as I call it, a discarded sample that then matches Mr. DeAngelo, that we're going to prevail.


    Obviously, again, in this case, it proved incredibly useful.




    And it seems to have pulled a very dangerous man into police custody.

    But do you understand those concerns that people raise, that perhaps when I give my DNA to one of these Web sites, I don't really ever expect it to be part of a police investigation that may not occur for years down the line?

    And you understand the concern that people raise that I don't want my DNA in some kind of a dragnet somewhere down the road.


    I understand the conversation. I actually do.

    And I also understand what, you know, the company GEDmatch put out after this occurred, which is essentially that folks that have put their information were on notice. And so that — I understand that.

    Again, I will say that this particular situation wasn't a matter of solving a car theft or a burglary. This was a — magnitude of this case was extraordinary. And law enforcement did what they felt was necessary to ultimately, and it did, in fact, lead us to the conclusion.


    With — one question about the specifics of this case.

    When people upload their DNA to these sites, usually, you're uploading your own DNA or the DNA of someone who you are the guardian for that. That wasn't the case in this case. Are you concerned at all about the legality of the evidence in this particular instance?


    Well, I'm quite confident this is going to play out in a courtroom, and everything that was done was put into an open-source site.



    … GEDmatch.

    So, I understand the public conversation about it, but I — as I said, I'm confident this is going to play out in a courtroom.


    Lastly, before I let you go, I would like to just shift to another case.

    Obviously, there is still a great deal of concern and outrage in Sacramento about the shooting death of Stephon Clark by two police officers. And a lot of people in the community have been arguing that you need to act quicker to prosecute the police officers for that shooting.

    Can you tell us where that stands? Why hasn't that happened yet?


    Well, the short answer is that we don't — we have not received any case from law enforcement yet to review on that.

    As I have said many, many times, these cases take — when it does get received in our office, it will take a period of time. My job, as the district attorney, is to do a full, fair and independent review.

    So, one, we don't have the case, and, two, when we do have the case, along with the attorney general, I'm quite confident we're going to do that.

    But I understand people's frustration, but I was elected to do a job, and I intend to do that.


    All right, Anne Marie Schubert, district attorney for Sacramento County, thank you very much.


    You're welcome. Thank you very much.

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