Hannah Lee, '21

December 21, 2020
Senior weighs using forensic genealogy to solve violent crime

After 40-plus years of investigative dead ends, a new forensic genealogy technology finally led law enforcement to identify the Golden State Killer, the perpetrator of 13 murders and nearly 50 rapes who terrorized Californians in the 1970s and ’80s. Hannah Lee, ’21, recalled listening mesmerized to a New York Times podcast on the new technology that resulted in Joseph DeAngelo’s 2018 arrest.

“The case was such a fascinating intersection of what interests me,” Lee said. “I love true crime and its intersection with ethics and criminal justice. What are all the implications of using this technology?”

The senior from Sherborn, Mass., is exploring that very question in her honors thesis, “Ethical Considerations of Forensic Genealogy.” Leadership studies professor Terry Price is serving as her faculty advisor.

“Historically, law enforcement has looked at exact matches in government DNA databases—a one-step process—to solve violent crimes,” Lee said. “But with the new forensic genealogy, law enforcement can compare DNA in private genealogy databases, such as GEDmatch and FamilyTree, to DNA they find at crime scenes. If they can match crime-scene DNA to a perpetrator’s family member, they can use a multi-step process to try to track down the perpetrator.”

Applying concepts she learned in her leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL) majors, she is critically analyzing arguments for and against the use of forensic genealogy in solving and prosecuting violent crimes. Ethical dilemmas arise when police use data collected from private genealogy and ancestry firms without their customers’ prior consent, she explained.

“Consequentialist and utilitarian arguments support the use of forensic genealogy because of the societal benefit of catching violent criminals and deterring violent crime,” Lee said. “The social justice perspective favors using forensic genealogy as a way to address inequities in a criminal justice system currently weighted against minorities. By using DNA, law enforcement can prosecute and convict people without regard to race.

“On the other hand, the communitarian view, which recognizes family as a really important part of a strong society, opposes using forensic genealogy because it can create family rifts. The libertarian view, which prioritizes individuals’ rights to privacy and autonomy, argues that the law doesn’t have any right to use personal information in prosecuting criminal cases.”

Lee’s pre-recorded presentation of some of her thesis arguments will be featured on the website of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics as part of the organization’s 30th-anniversary conference this February.

Regarding her personal views on her thesis topic, Lee said: “I believe it would be dumb not to use forensic genealogy to catch violent criminals. But we have to be careful of the slippery slope. Will it be used to solve nonviolent crimes? Will genealogy companies start selling their customers’ DNA data to health care insurers and employers? It’s complicated.”