What FGG is Revealing about CODIS and the Criminal Justice System

Wednesday September 15th, 2021 // 9:50 am - 10:20 am // Fiesta Ballroom

Forensic Genetic Genealogy (FGG) has moved from a miracle cure for the common cold case to its recognition as a practical tool that can be used to generate investigative leads. Arguably, FGG is now to DNA identification what CODIS was in the 1990s.


Because of the broader reach of crowd-sourced data, FGG is revealing missed opportunities to solve decades-old crimes through CODIS, highlighting systematic lapses in the criminal justice system. While FGG does not require an offender to be in an FGG crowd-sourced database to be identified, he (or his immediate family member in the case of familial searching) must be present in CODIS to achieve a hit. Many offenders identified through FGG had fallen through the cracks and continued to offend. The problem of lawfully owed DNA is enormous; it has been estimated that it accounts for perhaps 30,000-40,000 convicted offenders (and arrestees) per state.


A good example of the interaction between FGG and CODIS is the 2019 identification of Patrick Nicholas as a suspect in the 1991 King Co., WA homicide of Sarah Yarborough. The use of FGG to identify Nicholas not only raised awareness of the gaps in CODIS, but also fueled debate over the role of familial searching versus genetic genealogy. Nicholas was sentenced to prison in 1983 for attempted first-degree rape in Benton County, WA. He was released in 1987, but Washington State sex offender registration and DNA collection for CODIS-eligible offenses did not begin until 1990, and Nicholas’ sample was not collected retroactively. In 1993, he was arrested again for first degree child molestation. Although his DNA profile should have been entered into CODIS, he was allowed to plead to gross misdemeanor that did not require DNA collection. He escaped detection a second time. After Nicholas’ arrest, it was discovered that his brother Edward had already been entered into CODIS in 2005 for a prior conviction for rape in the first degree; he was also a registered sex offender. Because Washington does not practice familial searching, Patrick Nicholas had escaped detection a third time.


Besides drawing more attention to the problem of legally owed DNA and the need for familial searching, FGG is also helping to dispel myths about recidivism, suggesting the expansion of DNA collection laws to include drug, theft, and domestic violence-related crimes. Many notorious offenders have been found to have committed misdemeanors early in their careers; had their DNA been collected for these lower crimes, they would have been caught sooner, perhaps preventing them from advancing to sexual assault, homicide, or other violent felonies. Joseph DeAngelo, aka The Golden State Killer, was fired from the Auburn, CA Police Dept in 1979 when he was charged with shoplifting. He was also arrested and spent a few hours in the Sacramento County Jail in 1996 for allegedly robbing a gas station. Had retroactive DNA collection been in place, or broader collection laws been in existence on his second offense, he may have been identified sooner.


There are other relevant comparisons that can be made between genetic genealogy in general, FGG in particular, and CODIS, that draw a larger picture of the public’s attitude towards the criminal justice system. While the expansion of DNA collection laws and the use of familial searching has caused push-back on the side of privacy versus public safety, commercial Direct-to-Consumer DNA testing company databases have grown to be enormous in size, backed only by testing company privacy policies and terms of service agreements that can change unilaterally and without notice.  Ironically, CODIS has approximately 18 million entries from convicted offenders and arrestees while Ancestry has about 20 million entries from genetic genealogy customers.


In this talk, we explore what FGG has revealed to us about CODIS and the criminal justice system, through a discussion of FGG casework that has provided insight into deficits in the system and what is being done to remedy them. We discuss the challenges faced by SAKI programs in various states to collect lawfully owed DNA samples, along with debate over the expansion of DNA collection laws. We conclude with a discussion of public opinion as a major influence on the continued use of crowd-sourced FGG databases as an integral part of this game-changing investigative tool.



Private: Colleen Fitzpatrick

President and Founder of Identifinders International

Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD, the President and Founder of Identifinders International LLC, is widely recognized as the founder of modern Forensic Genealogy. She has worked several hundred cold case violent crimes and Doe cases using genetic genealogy analysis

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