A public DNA database led to a murder conviction, but innocent people may pay the price

To date, public DNA databases have been used to identify more than 40 rape and murder suspects, some from cases dating back a half-century. Yesterday, for the first time, evidence from one such database was used to convict a man of a double murder from the late 1980s.

Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 17, and her boyfriend, Jay Cook, 20, left Victoria, British Columbia on November 18, 1987 for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to the Seattle area. The next day, when the couple hadn’t returned home as planned, Van Cylenborg’s family started to get worried. It was “out of character” they said for her not to make contact, or to return home. A day later, on November 20, the two were officially reported missing.

It took investigators four days to find Van Cuylenborg’s body, semi-nude and strewn across a ditch on a rural road about 90 miles outside of Seattle. She had been raped, bound with plastic ties, and shot in the head.

Initially, investigators considered Cook, her boyfriend, a suspect. They found his body two days later, nearly 75 miles from where Van Cuylenborg was discovered. Cook had been beaten with rocks, and strangled. He had a pack of Camel Lights shoved into his mouth.

Years passed without much progress in identifying the killer, but 1994 offered new hope. Due to advances in DNA science, forensics experts were able to piece together a DNA profile based on the semen police had found on Van Cuylenborg’s pants. It was years later, in 2003, that Individual A, as he came to be known, was uploaded to Codis, the FBI criminal DNA database. Each passing year, each new profile added to the database, offered new opportunities to identify the killer.

Codis never produced a DNA match.

An ethical conundrum

As DNA testing gained a foothold in the US, consumers saw opportunity. For a handful of cash, websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com offered a full genetic workup, with testing kits delivered to your home and results available weeks later in the form of a completed DNA profile. For many customers, the experience stopped here. Others began uploading the genetic information to online databases.

Sites like GEDmatch offered hope to those looking to connect with long-lost relatives, or discover the biological parents of those who had been adopted as children. For genealogists, public DNA databases offered something else entirely: an ethical conundrum.

Science fiction had, for decades, predicted a government database containing the DNA of every citizen. Genealogists agreed that they already had one. What they couldn’t agree on, however, was how to use this information ethically. Using donated DNA profiles, genealogists could, for the first time, identify suspects in cold cases not through their own DNA, but the DNA of a family member.

And in the Van Cuylenborg case, that’s exactly how police managed to nab a killer, Willam Earl Talbott II.

Incapable of violence