Colin McCallin May 10, 2018

The East Area Rapist terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s. He was responsible for over 50 rapes, a dozen murders, and more than 100 burglaries. He came to be known as the Original Night Stalker, the Visalia Ransacker, and the Golden State Killer. Interest in this unresolved mystery was recently revived with the publication of the book I’ll be Gone in the Dark, by true crime writer Michelle McNamara, who died before its release. But the truth is, true crime aficionados and even investigators long doubted this perpetrator could be caught, or if he was even still alive, until DNA technology finally caught up to the crimes.

Big Announcement

In shocking news last month, Sacramento police announced that they identified and arrested the Golden State Killer based on new DNA technology that allowed them to match what they collected decades ago with information in a DNA database. Joseph DeAngelo, now 72, was taken into custody and is confirmed to be a match to the DNA collected from several murder and rape scenes. After more than 40 years, families and survivors of his terrible attacks can find some peace and some justice.

The DNA Discovery

But how were police able to get a sample of his DNA in order to match it? What many people don’t fully realize when they sign up for personal genetic testing is that many of these services maintain the DNA sample in a database with information accessible to the authorities. DeAngelo was identified through a match with his fourth cousin.

Police in this investigation fed the killer’s DNA profile into the database and pulled up familial matches. From there they narrowed down suspects based on other information they had and were able to quickly identify and locate DeAngelo. He had worked as a police officer for many of the crimes, and had a military background, leading investigators to believe his insight and knowledge about the system helped him evade the law. Some even say he stopped his crime spree when DNA science began to emerge because he understood that growing DNA technology might eventually identify him.

Legal Concerns

But along with the great benefits of this technology come concerns. Is it legally viable for law enforcement to readily access DNA for identification purposes?

Some argue that DNA, like fingerprints, is an effective form of unique identification and should be accessible to law enforcement. Like fingerprints, DNA is left, or abandoned, at a scene to be collected. Furthermore, those who submit to DNA testing voluntarily are told in the terms and conditions they accept that their information can be accessed.

In terms of fingerprinting, many people are required to submit fingerprints for background checks and employment. Those fingerprint cards stay in a system and can be pulled up by law enforcement, even if they were collected for non-criminal reasons. In this way, fingerprinting and DNA are similar.

But DNA matches can be obtained indirectly as in the case above, through relatives. Here DNA and fingerprinting diverge, since no one can have their fingerprints connected to a crime through a third person like with DNA. This is where the legal concept of abandonment becomes more important.

Abandonment means a person has left something behind without any intention of retrieval, like leaving physical evidence at a scene, or throwing something away. This is the concept investigators rely on when they go through trash to collect evidence, for example, because it is clear when someone trashes something they have no intention to reclaim it. But abandonment is also knowingly giving up any control over something, as in allowing a DNA testing company to maintain your records in their system and under their rules.

However, if the owner of the DNA profile did not themselves provide a sample, is it legally sound to use a third party sample to dig up a match? And are there ways that law enforcement can manipulate DNA data or matches to make connections that are not there, or place DNA at a scene to frame someone? What if a relative is implicated instead of the actual perpetrator?

These are not necessarily new questions. Restrictions on how evidence is obtained or used exist and are designed to prevent abuse, so these concerns emerge appropriately with new technology. While law enforcement in this instance claimed to pursue DNA with these concerns in mind, it is clear the justice system will have to sort out some of these issues sooner than later as the tech around DNA is rapidly refining.

In the meantime, DNA is changing law enforcement investigations. Not only has it been used to identify culprits in cold cases, but it has been used to exonerate those who were falsely accused or convicted. And the technology has improved to such a degree that even small, aged, or mixed samples of DNA may be examined now to reveal new details or distinguish an individual profile. In fact, a sample of DNA from envelopes sent by the Zodiac Killer, another infamous cold case, are currently being put through DNA databases in the hopes of resolving this mystery.

DNA is clearly the wave of the future in law enforcement; now the law must keep up to make sure it is applied justly.