forensic genealogy

Forensic Genealogy | How DNA Can Solve Crime

In November 6, 2019

Forensic, as Merriam Webster defines it, is relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems. Genealogy is defined as an account of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor. When you combine the two together, it’s amazing what can be uncovered. Let’s dive a little deeper on the subject and explore how forensic genealogy can help blow a cold case wide open. 

Colleen Fitzpatrick, an American scientist who is widely regarded as the founder of the field of forensic genealogy, defines it as “The study of identity and kinship in legal contexts. This includes finding family references for DNA identification, fraud exposure, locating heirs for probate matters, clearing real estate titles, determining mineral rights inheritance and more. The tasks that forensic genealogists address are similar to those dealt with by conventional genealogists—establishing bloodlines, researching family genealogies, using DNA to prove kinship—but with a standard of proof that is acceptable in court. Forensic genealogy has also been described as “CSI Meets Roots,” since it involves the application of scientific methods to solve genealogical mysteries.” 

Other genealogists would agree with Fitzpatrick but might also say that forensic genealogy is like regular genealogy in reverse. RecordClick, a group of professionals that specialize in genealogy, explain it as “…in forensic cases, you begin with the deceased and you look for the living, compared to conventional genealogy, which starts with the living and looks for the deceased.”

They go on to explain that forensic genealogy is figured out by combining forensic techniques with conventional research. The three most important sources of forensic genealogy include photo analysis, database mining, and DNA analysis. In an interview, Fitzpatrick explains the importance of photo analysis and how much information can be pulled from a picture. “A high resolution scan of a photograph can reveal a lot of interesting details. For example, the letters on a sign may become legible, or details of a person’s face might be revealed that will allow you to compare him to someone appearing in another photograph. The lengths of shadows may be more accurately measured for calculating the time of day and day of the year. A high resolution scan might also reveal objects in the background of a photo or in shadow that could be significant in identifying it.”

Want to know more about the process? Scientists and genealogists at Bode Technology take you through their step by step process for forensic genealogy cases.

  1. Case Review – The Bode team will review the case and DNA results to determine eligibility and how to proceed.
  2. DNA Extraction (if required) – Based on case history or DNA quality, Bode will perform DNA extraction in an accredited laboratory.
  3. SNP Testing – SNP (or single nucleotide polymorphism) testing will be performed at a certified laboratory to generate data suitable for searching in multiple genealogy databases.
  4. Forensic Genealogy Screening – An initial screening will be performed to identify relevant matches. At this point, a decision will be made on whether or not to proceed with a forensic genealogy investigation.
  5. Forensic Genealogy Investigation – Forensic genealogy investigation will be performed to determine the individuals likely related to the unknown sample. The team maintains communication with investigators throughout the process to properly support and protect the investigation.  
  6. Confirmation Testing – The team at Bode will run fresh reference samples in their labs for direct comparison to the original evidence.
  7. Case Monitoring – In the event that productive leads are not identified in either the screening or investigation, the case will continue to be monitored in the databases regularly by the Bode team. 

Forensic genealogists assist attorneys on probate and missing heir research, but they also assist the Department of Defense on the location of next-of-kin for military identifications, police departments on cold cases (such as the murder or April Tinsley or the case against William Ealr Talbott), real estate speculators on trace property titles, and collectors to establish the provenance of art pieces.

If you fit one of the above categories and require assistance from a forensic genealogist, reach out to Bode Technology or check out HeirSearch for help. Have a few gaps in your genealogy history? VitalChek can provide you with copies of birth and/or death certificates quickly and securely. 

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