Backmann started Project Cold Case in 2015, as he was grappling with his own father’s case, which was frosting over. (Cliff Backmann was shot in the back and killed during a robbery in 2009.) Since then, through public records requests and submissions from families of victims, he has assembled a nationwide clearinghouse of information on more than 10,000 unsolved murders. Although the FBI keeps numbers on unsolved murders—250,000 of them in the US since 1980, according to the Murder Accountability Project—before Project Cold Case there was no searchable database with names of victims and the investigating agencies. Backmann made one so people with tips would have an easier time coming forward.
In the year since the Golden State Killer case broke open, he has made dozens of calls to police departments on behalf of family members wanting to know if their case could be eligible for a genetic genealogy approach. Sometimes he learns that those cases don’t have any DNA evidence, or that there’s not enough material left over to generate a genetic profile. Sometimes he discovers the DNA is there, but there’s not enough money in the agency budget to give it a shot. That’s why Backmann recently began meeting with potential benefactors and launched a fund to raise money to help law enforcement investigate these cases. He says they haven’t raised enough yet to advertise to agencies—even if they could wrangle nonprofit pricing from Parabon or Bode, any donations totaling less than six figures “would just disappear in a weekend,” says Backmann, given the amount of interest. “It feels like we’re on the very front of this wave, but for most of us we’re just waiting for it to really be available to the masses, and not just a niche thing.”
Before it gets to the masses though, lawmakers like Charles Sydnor III are trying to make sure the public has a frank discussion about what it means for the government to have access to consumer DNA databases filled with millions of law-abiding American citizens. In January, he introduced a bill into the Maryland House of Delegates that would have been the first law in the US to ban police from using genetic genealogy, based on concerns that it amounts to “genetic surveillance.” But state law enforcement agencies came out hard against the bill (as did Parabon’s CEO, Steven Armentrout), and it died in committee a few weeks later.
Sydnor is now planning a special interim hearing for this fall to educate his colleagues on the topic of investigative genetic genealogy, before trying again next session. As the headlines pile up with new cold cases cracked every week, he says that some of those colleagues have said to him, "Charles, the genie’s out of the bottle, what do you really think you can do about it?" He thinks he has one thing on his side: Maryland has long been a defender of genetic privacy rights. In 2008, it became the only state to ban the older practice of “familial searches,” which involves police rummaging around genetic registries of convicted felons and arrestees in an attempt to identify suspects through their close genetic kin. He just wants the families of genealogy enthusiasts to enjoy the same protections as the families of convicted criminals. “We’ve had a policy for over a decade that says we shouldn’t be doing this,” Sydnor says. “I want to catch the bad guys as much as everyone else, but there are all sorts of unintended consequences to this that we’re not stopping to think about.”
Other states are pushing their own legislation in different directions. In February, an Arizona lawmaker proposed a mandatory DNA database for that state’s citizens that would have been searchable by law enforcement investigating crimes. (The bill was amended following public outcry.) Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts are drafting a bill that would enshrine investigative genetic genealogy as a legal practice in that state. The bill’s cosponsors are reported to be working with the family of a young woman who was abducted and killed 19 years ago and whose killer remains at-large, but they could not be reached to answer specific questions about the proposed law. Besides an all-out ban, some legal experts have recommended limiting the practice in other ways—to only violent crimes, or only once all other options have been exhausted, similar to how California regulates familial search. Some genetic counselors have advocated that police be prohibited from using genetic profiles to look up medical information or release sensitive family secrets. Others have said they want there to be compassionate carve-outs for mothers identified through genetic genealogy in abandoned baby cases.
Moore is keeping an eye on all these developments. But she says she has no plans to stop using genetic genealogy to solve crimes unless a law or negative court ruling forces her to. Her biggest concern as the field heats up is the lack of standards. “There’s no such thing as a PhD in genetic genealogy,” says Moore, who, like all the field’s pioneers, is self-taught. “There’s not a degree or a certification or even a certifying body that can say who’s qualified to work these cases.” Moore says she recently approached the closest thing—the Board for Certification of Genealogists—about developing a separate credential for using genetic genealogy for criminal investigations. So far the talks haven’t gone anywhere.
“That’s a problem, because someone getting arrested as a result of your work is about as high stakes as it gets,” Moore says. While genetic genealogists provide leads only to law enforcement agencies—they’re responsible for then singling out the suspect with shoe-leather policing and DNA confirmatory testing—Moore is beginning to feel the weight of her contributions. And she’s starting to think about how she can use her skills not just to help get the right people behind bars but to also free the wrongfully imprisoned ones.
Two weeks ago she met with the Innocence Project about exploring how post-conviction attorneys might go about getting court orders to have crime-scene DNA sent to Parabon to be turned into files uploaded into GEDmatch. “The process would be the same, but the goal would be much different,” she says. “It hasn’t happened yet, but I think it has a lot of potential to flip genetic genealogy on its head as a tool for clearing the innocent.” It’s an intriguing idea. But for now, there’s a lot more money to be made—and a lot more political will—to use it to lock people up.