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DNA Databases Testing The Limits Of Privacy

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) - It could be the end of privacy as we know it.

Home DNA testing combined with genetic genealogy means virtually anyone can be identified.

The new technology is turning cold cases red hot, solving dozens of cases across the nation including one in Fort Worth.

Julie Fuller was just 11 years old when she was abducted, raped and strangled in 1983.

Julie Fuller
Julie Fuller (courtesy: Fort Worth Police Dept.)

Thirty years later, FWPD detective Thomas O'Brien took over the case.

"They weren't looking at DNA back then," he said. "There wasn't a database that existed to do that."

There is now.

Parabon Nanolabs in Virginia tested rape kit evidence to identify people with similar DNA.

O'Brien used that list of names to find other relatives.

Once he identified a suspect, he contacted the man's family.

"I think they felt confident," he said. "'Well this is probably the person if you're asking about it.'"

James McNichols had died years earlier. Still, his family members agreed to take a kinship DNA test, which proved he was the killer.

It was the answer Julie's old brother had waited for, for 36 years. "It was something that he had felt would truly never be solved," said O'Brien.

James McNichols
James McNichols (courtesy: Fort Worth Police Dept.)

"For most people just getting a name is very important," said Marian Woods, a genetic genealogist based in Plano.

Her first case was her own.

At 15 she learned the man raising her was not her biological father. She spent four decades wondering before using her own DNA to track down a name.

He had already passed away but Woods says just knowing, was enough. "It was a sense of gratitude and closure."

But Woods warns that is not always the outcome.

"The person should be prepared for a rollercoaster ride, because you can get very shocking results [or] very disappointing results."

That can include surprise siblings or secret adoptions.

Two of her current cases involve clients born out of rape and prostitution.

According to Woods, even people who never have their own DNA tested can be affected.

Every one-night stand, every sperm donor no longer has anonymity.

Woods says DNA databases effectively mean the end of privacy for everyone.

"Even if you don't upload your DNA, your niece, your nephew, your grandmother, your aunt, your uncle - everyone is getting these kits for Christmas," said Woods. "Everyone has a curiosity and they have a right to know!"

It's important to note, finding matches isn't necessarily as easy as clicking a button.

Online databases could give you 1,000 possible relatives. Determining how they're related could require researching census data, obituaries, family trees and more.

Back at the Fort Worth Police Department, Detective O'Brien is hoping to use genetic genealogy to solve more crimes, even though he understands the potential privacy concerns.

"I think the majority of individuals who would look at this would agree that there is a great good that we're dealing with," he said. "And I think they would be okay with it."

Parabon's chief genetic genealogist released this statement about the Julie Fuller case:

"Julie Fuller's case is a good example of the power of investigative genetic genealogy and its ability to provide answers and resolution to the families and communities impacted by these types of terrible crimes, and make society a safer place for all. It was an honor to assist Detective Tom O'Brien and the Fort Worth Police Department on the Julie Fuller case. Fort Worth is very fortunate to have such a dedicated, caring detective. Our hearts go out to Julie's family."

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