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Can Genealogy DNA Link To The Wrong Suspect?

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The technique that led to the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer has now helped police in Alabama crack a decades-old double murder. The suspect in court Wednesday claims he's innocent, but as this type of crime fighting becomes more common, some are wondering if genealogy DNA can link to the wrong suspect.

CBS13 investigator Julie Watts found that yes, DNA can get it wrong, and it has. In fact, genealogy DNA led to a different suspect in the Golden State Killer case before police arrested Joseph DeAngelo. His case has a lot in common with the Alabama case.

Coley McCraney, 45, faces charges in the 1999 killings of two high school students, Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley.

Carol Roberts said she's had countless dreams about Hawlett, her daughter. "I wake up and I hear her screaming," Roberts told CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca.

Hawlett and Beasley were 17 when they got lost on an Ozark, Alabama, road in 1999. A memorial marks where their bodies were found in the trunk of Beasley's car. They had been shot.

"We haven't slept all night in almost 20 years," Roberts said. "I don't care how many times a night I wake up, Tracie's on my mind."

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It also stayed on the mind of Marlos Walker, now Ozark's police chief. "I remember like yesterday where I was when I got the phone call about this case," Walker said.

A few months ago he decided to see if old evidence might lead to a new break in the case.

"What really struck the heart with me was when the Golden State Killer got caught… and I just thought that why not try to apply that to this case?" Walker said.

Alleged Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested in 2018 after DNA tied him to a series of decades-old rapes and murders.

Inspired by that case, Walker submitted the Ozark evidence to Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs to help find the suspect. Parabon developed a genetic profile of a suspect and then ran that information through public DNA database GEDmatch. Parabon then created a possible family tree.

Hundreds of police departments are using a combination of GEDmatch and crime scene DNA to track down family members of possible suspects.

Within months, Walker had several new leads and called in who he thought was a family member of a potential suspect.

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Last month police arrested McCraney. McCraney's attorney said his client is not guilty.

"Over 200 agencies have reached out to Parabon and asked us to analyze their cases," chief genetic genealogist Cece Moore said. She worked on the Ozark case.

Parabon has helped solve nearly 50 cold cases. Moore said the company's work generates leads.

"We're providing a highly scientific tip, but no one's going to be arrested based on what we say alone. Law enforcement has to take that tip and then go and build their traditional forensic case against this person," Moore said.

The technique has faced criticism from privacy advocates, and a 2014 British study on familial DNA searches reportedly found an 83 percent failure rate.

Investigators in the Golden State Killer case even misidentified a 73-year-old Oregon man as their suspect before finding DeAngelo, because the two men had the same rare genetic marker.

Still, Carol is praying that in her daughter's case, genealogy leads to justice.

"All I've ever wanted to do was stand in front of someone one day and ask them why," Roberts said.

McCraney faces the death penalty if he is convicted. It is important to note that this type of evidence has not been used in trial yet. The Golden State Killer case will likely be the first to use it.

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