The Forever Witness
Penguin Random House 2022
Would you allow law enforcement access to your DNA if it would bring a killer to justice? In the United States, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning-author Edward Humes, four out of ten murderers in the United States are never apprehended. Genetic genealogy is now a proven tool for identifying some of those criminals, but at what cost to your privacy?
There’s now a debate underway whether access to personal information by law enforcement is ethical, and that’s where Humes’s research and detailed reporting is most riveting.
Humes, in his riveting and mournful true-crime book, The Forever Witness, outlines in excruciating detail the 1987 murder of two young Canadians traveling to Seattle, Washington, on an errand. Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 19, had agreed to accompany her boyfriend, Jay Cook, 20, to Seattle to retrieve a furnace part for his father’s customer, which required an overnight stay where they slept in their van in a parking lot near the parts shop.
A week later, a man searching for recyclable items located Tanya’s body alongside a deserted road near Alger, Washington. She had been raped and shot in the head. Days later, Jay’s body was found by hunters — suffocated, and beat over the head with a rock.
Detective Jim Scharf, who found “his calling” in the department’s cold-case unit, worked tirelessly on every tip, determined to solve that case before he retired. In 2019 he contacted Paradon Nano Labs who used DNA to identify facial characteristics. They were collaborating with CeCe Moore, who’d abandoned her acting career to sift through information gathered from consumer’s DNA tests to help adoptees, foundlings and families of amnesiacs. She started DNA Detectives, and accomplished a first: She solved a crime solely through genetic genealogy with techniques of her own devising. When Paradon asked her to trace DNA sent by Scharf, within two hours she was able to give Scharf a name, a suspect. She mapped where the DNA originated by using DNA supplied by millions of Americans in home ancestry tests.
Humes chronicles the many cold cases solved by Moore before concerns surfaced. Was public access to person’s DNA a violation of privacy? Many customers using ancestry testing opt out of allowing law enforcement access to their DNA, reducing the evidence pool that could solve cold cases. There’s now a debate underway whether access to personal information by law enforcement is ethical, and that’s where Humes’s research and detailed reporting is most riveting. He outlines future potential benefits of genetic genealogy including solving cold cases. A former journalist, Humes also details states considering laws regarding genetic genealogy, like certification and educational standards. But for certain, genealogy and genetic pioneering is over, he says.
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