Recently I heard about a criminal case that’s part of an interesting and quite debatable field in regard to Science and Ethics. With emerging technology, scientific progress and the development of the scientific community, one might wonder about the impact it has on our society and every-day life. This progress also gives rise to questionable scenarios whether science has ‘crossed the line’ and impeded privacy and anonymity or whether its acceptable to apply science increasingly in our lives. To properly address and evaluate what I mean with this, I decided to delve into the topic and do a little series of “Science and Ethics”.
The first case is one I’m very excited about – In my opinion it is an amazing example of how we benefit in our daily lives from seemingly ‘unrelated’ progresses in science – DNA sequencing.
The Golden Sate Killer
From 1974 to 1986, appalling crimes including rape and murder have been committed by serial Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in the Sacramento and LA area. Over 13 murders and 50 rapes have been attributed to DeAngelo, who was a police officer during that time. The details about the investigation, false leads and other specifics are described in detail here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_State_Killer). The case was never solved at the time, the criminal was never identified, and was up until a couple years ago, a cold case.
Almost 40 years later, with the rapid and fascinating development of DNA sequencing, open access websites, such as “GEDmatch” and “myheritage.com” have emerged. These allow you to upload your DNA sequence on an open platform to establish family trees and identify your predecessors and relatives. In early 2018, investigators took a shot at running DeAngelo’s sequence against any sequences uploaded on GEDmatch and were able to identify ca 10. (very) distant relatives.
Over the times course of 4 months, a team of detectives worked closely with genealogist Barabara Rae-Venter (1) on tracing down his family tree and narrowing down on a suspect that fits the profile of the Golden State Killer. After they identified DeAngelo, they secretly collected DNA material from his car handle, and later, DNA from a tissue in DeAngelo’s garbage. They were able to establish a 100% match and definitively identify Joseph James DeAngelo and arrest him. In April 2019, prosecutors announced that he was sentenced to the death penalty.
The questionable aspect that arose throughout this case regarding ethical concerns, is the secret obtaining of genetic material that was used to incriminate DeAngelo. Although, in my personal opinion, these means are unquestionably justified in this case, as the outcome (ie. catching DeAngelo) is undoubtfully of higher significance, I understand that this might – unrelated to the case – leave people wondering about the ethical implications in the long run: We leave DNA wherever we go and it is close to impossible for us to do any activity without leaving some form genetic material, which gives rise to questions like: “what about genetic privacy?” and “What about personal anonymity/ freedom/rights?” Additionally, the likelihood is high that future advancements in technology and science will simplify the genetic identification of anyone and, over time, facilitate access other people’s genetic footprints.
Despite these possible concerns, I think this is a fascinating case that really highlights how advancements in science are useful to different lines of work and areas of expertise. However, this might understandably, also leave some open questions about the secondary use of personal information, including DNA, in relation to privacy and freedom where individual opinions can really split.
The Next post will be on the obtaining of HeLa cells, a widely used cell line in research biology, without the consent of the patient in 1951, at a time a working-class African American woman, called Henrietta Lacks from Baltimore.
I hope everyone’s having a great week!