UK police can use DNA techniques used to catch US Golden State Killer

UK police could now start using genealogy DNA databases to catch criminals despite ethical concerns after US police used one to snare the ‘Golden State Killer’, says top forensics expert

  •  Joseph James DeAngelo is suspected of 13 murders and 50 rapes in California 
  • Detectives identified DeAngelo as a suspect after using a public DNA database 
  • Privacy campaigners have expressed concern about the police’s methods 
  • UK forensic experts pioneered the technique to track killers using family DNA 

UK police could use the same genealogy DNA techniques used in California to track down the ‘Golden State Killer’ according to one of Britain’s top forensic experts. 

Professor Denise Syndercombe Court, who is Professor of Forensic Genetics at Kings College in London said there are certainly ethical and privacy issues, but if it decided that their use is ‘proportionate and likely to help’, officers would get a green light.

Detectives in California managed to catch Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, after they uploaded crime scene DNA onto a public genetic genealogical database, GEDmatch, and found a match to one of his relatives. 

DeAngelo, who is a former police officer, is suspected of killing 13 people and raping almost 50 women during the 1970s and 1980s.

Professor of Forensic Genetics Denise Syndercombe Court of Kings College in London, pictured, said UK police would seek advice from ethics experts before using a database

Joseph DeAngelo (left), the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer (sketch, right), was arrested on Tuesday, after investigators used a DNA ancestry website to identify him

DeAngelo was arrested at his home in Citrus Heights (above) on Tuesday after DNA linked him to crimes attributed to the Golden State Killer from the 1970s and 80s

According to Professor Sydercombe Court, this would produce an ethical dilemma as the family member would not have explicitly consented for their DNA to be used in such a way. 

Officers in California did not need a court order to access the GEDmatch database because it is publicly available. The database has around one million members.

Detectives used the information to narrow down the list of suspects and secured a ‘clandestine DNA sample’ from DeAngelo from a disposable cup – which provided a match to the original crime scene. 

In Britain, more than 200 police investigations have used familial DNA searches of the UK’s National DNA database which contains more than 5.8 profiles. 

Between 2002 and 2011, such searches in the UK were able to identify 41 perpetrators or suspects.

Professor Sydercombe Court told MailOnline: ‘I would think the Chief Constable would talk to the Forensic Regulator, or the Biometrics Commissioner if they were going to do something like that. 

‘The decision may be made then and there, but if either of them think that it is something that will need a policy decision in the future then they may put it before the ethics group [Forensics Regulations or the Biometrics Commissioner] to look at further. 

‘There are things that are initiated by police – for example using photographs of interesting parties to see if they can be found at an event – that the public might question – and the government may seek some guidance on its proportional use. 

‘I think the purpose would be about advising ministers on the issues and then it would be up to the minister to determine the policy – they could completely ignore the group’s suggestions.’

Lorry driver Michael Little, left, died after a brick was thrown through his cab from a motorway bridge on the M3 by Craig Harman, right. In 2004, Harman was the first person in the world to be convicted using familial DNA after police found a relative’s profile on the national database

Police found Harman’s DNA on a brick he hurled at Mr Little’s truck smashing its windscreen. Officers matched that DNA to one of Harman’s relatives who was on the National DNA database and used the evidence to convict him of Mr Little’s manslaughter

According to Professor Sydercombe Court, the police would likely want to know the number of UK profiles on the database they are searching to determine how useful it would be to an investigation. 

She said: ‘One of the main ethical considerations is whether conducting a familial search is proportionate and likely to help with the investigation.’

‘People will have uploaded their DNA to these databases in the hope of finding a distant relative. They will not have explicitly consented for their data to be used for other purposes.

‘If someone is looking for a relative, do they look at the terms and conditions of the website or service and how this private information is stored and kept.

‘In the UK, we try and avoid revealing the private information of people without people’s consent. If you take a piece of DNA it is possible to determine whether someone is more predisposed to developing a certain disease. That is private information.

‘People may be happy if their DNA is shared to be used for a good reason, such as helping medical research. But they will be less inclined to share if it will be used by an insurance company who identifies them and hits them with a bigger premium.

‘In the UK, there is a very secure DNA database and a small number of people have access to it. If a crime scene DNA sample is taken, there is currently a 60 per cent chance of a hit. The crime scene DNA material is held by a scientist and the police do not have a copy of it. There is a closer link between scientists and police in the US.

According to Professor Syndercombe Court, police are able to use familial DNA in the UK and have had great success.

James Lloyd, known as the ‘Shoe Rapist’ was jailed for 15 years in 2006 after his sister had DNA taken following her arrest on suspicion of drink driving. Her arrest and DNA sample narrowed down the search for the suspect

‘The main problem is about narrowing down the number of potential matches. If you have a match to a third or a fourth cousin you could be talking about hundreds or thousands of people. You still have to find the correct person from that list.

‘In the Golden State Killer case, the police narrowed down the number of suspects by age. They managed to get a clandestine saliva sample from the suspect and this matched the original crime scene sample. Then it is a case of arresting the suspect and getting a sample from them and see if that matches with the original and clandestine evidence.’

‘A familial DNA match helps narrow down the list of potential suspects. Before DNA, police would have to rule out hundreds of people by other means. Now many are ruled out without even knowing.’ 

UK police and forensic scientists were the first in the world to use familial DNA to catch a criminal suspect.

Craig Harman of Frimley, Surrey, was the first ever person convicted after being tracked down using a relative’s DNA in 2004. 

Harman threw a brick from a motorway bridge which smashed through the windscreen of a lorry. The driver, Michael Little, suffered a heart attack and later died. 

Harman was tracked down after a close relative’s profile was on the National DNA Database NDAD. He was sentenced to six years at the Old Bailey for manslaughter.

Lloyd was known as ‘The Shoe Rapist’ after he kept trophies from each of his victims. He was jailed for the rapes of four women in the early 1980s and the attempted rapes of two others

Between 2002 and 2011, 188 police investigations used familial DNA searches, identifying 41 perpetrators or suspects. 

A further 17 cases were added to the list in 2015/16, according to the most recent figures. There are currently 5.8 million DNA profiles on the National Database, with almost 300,000 new profiles added and a further  206,000 deleted in 2015/16.

Last month, the Metropolitan Police’s cold case squad added the case of Debbie Linsley, who was murdered on March 23, 1988 to the list of familial DNA searches. 

Ms Linsley was stabbed to death on the 14.16 train from Orpington to London Victoria on March 23, 1988. 

Detectives investigating the case have taken more than 1,200 statements and eliminated more than 650 potential suspects.

Ms Linsley fought with her attacker, who was using a five-and-a-half inch knife, and detectives have a full DNA profile of the suspect. They are now going to see if a relative of the attacker is one of the five million people on the national DNA database.  

The Metropolitan Police’s cold case squad is currently seeking to use a familial DNA search to track down the suspect who murdered Debbie Linsley, pictured, who was stabbed to death in March 1988 on a train from Orpington to London. Ms Linsley fought with her killer who left behind a full DNA profile. Officers hope a member of the killer’s family is on the National DNA Database to help them dramatically narrow down the list of suspects

Acting Detective Inspector Susan Stansfield of the Met’s Special Casework Investigation Team said: ‘It has been 30 years since Debbie was tragically murdered, but our efforts to trace the perpetrator continue. We will do everything in our power to identify the killer and bring them to justice.

‘We have a DNA profile of the suspect and this remains a key piece of evidence that we are following up on. As well as the physical evidence at our disposal, we would be keen to hear from anyone who has information that might assist the inquiry. Have you had an unusual, out-of-the-blue conversation with someone about the murder in the intervening years? Has someone confided in you with information only the killer would know?

‘Although this happened 30 years ago, you may recall being on that train or at a station on the route and seeing something which at the time you thought nothing of but in light of what happened was out of place and suspicious, and might be significant.’ 

Familial DNA was also used to capture the ‘Shoe Rapist’ James Lloyd who was jailed for 15 years in 2006. 

Joseph James DeAngelo, pictured, appeared in court in Sacramento, California on Friday following his arrest earlier in the week

Detectives failed to find Lloyd’s DNA on the database. His sister, who had been arrested on suspicion of drink-driving had a sample taken which was on the database. 

Through that sample, officers were able to connect Lloyd to four rapes.

It was also used in 2005 to capture the ‘White Van Man’ James Davies who sexually assaulted women across three counties. His relative’s DNA produced a ‘familial hit’ on the database leading to his capture. 

Also, Paul Hutchinson was jailed for the rape and murder of trainee hairdresser Colette Aram in 1983. He was caught after his son was arrested for a driving offence in June 2008. The sample alerted detectives of the  link to the married father-of-four.  

Fewer than 30 people have direct access to the National DNA Database which is run by the Home Office. 

According to Home Office guidelines: ‘One half of an individual’s DNA profile is inherited from their father and the other half from their mother. As a result, the DNA profile records of a parent and child, or two siblings, will share a significant proportion of the 16 pairs of numbers. 

‘This means that, in cases where the police have found the perpetrator’s DNA at the crime scene, but they do not have a profile on NDNAD, a search of the database, known as a ‘familial search’, can be carried out to look for possible close relatives of the perpetrator. 

‘Such a search may produce a list of possible relatives of the offender. The police use other intelligence, such as age and geography, to narrow down the list before investigating further.

‘The search is computerised and involves only the DNA profile records on NDNAD. Due to the cost and staffing needed to carry out familial searches, they are used only for the most serious of crimes.’

In the US, Florida-based GEDmatch complained that Californian police never approached them before searching their database. 

Curtis Rogers of GEDmatch said: ‘This was done without our knowledge, and it’s been overwhelming.’    

The case has raised concern in the US among defence lawyers. Maryland public defender Steve Mercer complained privacy laws were not strong enough to protect people’s rights.

He said: ‘People who submit DNA for ancestors testing are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family.’



’23andMe chooses to use all practical legal and administrative resources to resist requests from law enforcement, and we do not share customer data with any public databases, or with entities that may increase the risk of law enforcement access. 

‘In certain circumstances, however, 23andMe may be required by law to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or personal information.’

‘Ancestry advocates for its members’ privacy and will not share any information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant. 

‘Additionally, we publish law enforcement requests in our transparency report annually. It’s important to note that in all of 2015, 2016, and 2017 we received no valid legal requests for genetic information.’


‘Helix has not been contacted by law enforcement and has not received requests for information relating to the suspected ‘Golden State Killer’ or any other investigation.

‘In the event that we do receive a request, Helix limits what information and under what conditions its customers’ personal information is provided to law enforcement. Specifically, Helix operates consistently with its Privacy Policy which provides that Helix may disclose customer’s personal information, including Genetic Information: ‘to comply with law, a valid court order, a judicial proceeding, subpoenas, warrants, bankruptcy proceedings, or in connection with any legal process, provided that we will not disclose your Genetic Information without a valid subpoena or search warrant specific to your Genetic Information. If we are required to disclose your information, we will do our best to provide you with notice in advance, unless we are prohibited by law from doing so.”


FamilyTreeDNA, the pioneer company in the field of genetic genealogy, was not contacted formally, by any law enforcement agency, regarding the Golden State Killer case.

While we take our customers’ privacy and confidentiality extremely seriously, we support ethically and legally justified uses of groundbreaking advancements of scientific research in genetics and genealogy.

The irony is the fact that this arrest was made on National DNA day, which should not be lost on any of us.

Living DNA 

‘Living DNA is under strict English and EU laws when it comes to data security. We would resist any request to access customer data without the consent of the customer, and would only release data where legally compelled to do so, e.g by where ordered by a court having jurisdiction over us.

We have not been asked to provide, nor have we provided any customer details/data to any authority worldwide including the US authorities.’


According to Motherboard reporter Sarah Emerson: ‘MyHeritage, a similar genealogy site that lets you upload raw DNA data, just confirmed that it was not involved with the case, and says it was not used by [law enforcement] as a tool to compare genetic profiles.’

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