In 1980, Lyman and Charlene Smith were found bound and bludgeoned to death in their Ventura County home. Charlene had also been raped, and investigators managed to retrieve semen from the crime scene. It would take 38 years to find the killer.
"It was a sensational, godawful murder in a small town," recalls Jennifer Carole, Lyman Smith's daughter. The way they had been murdered "had a lot of feeling and emotion behind it," she recalls. "There was a lot of reason why you would think that someone they knew did this."
Carole would eventually learn that her father and stepmother had been victims of a notorious serial rapist and killer who had 87 individual victims at 53 separate crime scenes from 1975 to 1986.
Known as the Golden State Killer, the assailant avoided detection for decades.
In 2018, police finally identified and arrested the killer, a retired police officer and truck mechanic named Joseph James DeAngelo. They solved the case thanks to the advent of online genealogy databases, in which individuals voluntarily share their DNA online to obtain information about their personal health and heritage and to connect with family members.
These databases were what allowed investigators to bring DeAngelo to justice, and they went on to be used to name suspects in dozens of other cold cases across the United States, ushering in a new technological leap that the law is still catching up with.
The Golden State Killer story was told in magazines, books, podcasts, an HBO series.
But the capture of the Golden State Killer also has troubling implications for civil liberties. The use of genealogical databases for crime fighting makes it possible for the government to search through personal information of innocent citizens—their genetic code—in ways that violate privacy norms enshrined in the Constitution.
Police had DNA from the Smith crime scene genotyped in the same way customers would, using a single nucleotide polymorphism test. They compared the raw data with that of other people who had uploaded their data to genealogy websites, including YSearch, MyHeritageDNA, FamilyTree DNA, and GEDMatch. Connections between family members revealed a family tree that would lead to DeAngelo.
"The idea is not that the police are supposed to indiscriminately rummage through the lives of citizens looking for crime," says Erin E. Murphy, a law professor at New York University and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. "They're supposed to have probable cause, targeted suspicion to believe somebody involved in criminal activity and then from that suspicion perhaps develop reason for arrest or prosecution."
According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators believed their genealogy searching was legal. "We were entirely confident that it would pass legal muster," former Golden State Killer investigator Paul Holes told the Times. "But we understood that there could be a fallout in terms of public perception."
"Rifling through the lives of thousands of innocent people, people you know are not the perpetrator of the crime, is a pretty serious thing to encourage law enforcement to do," says Murphy.
Shot, written, produced, edited, and motion graphics by Paul Detrick; additional camera by Zach Weissmuller.
Music credits: Kiss of Death by Kadir Demir; Hope and Heisenberg by Spearfisher; Psycho Bill by Jordan Hatfield; Speed Freak by Evgeny Bardyuzha; Null by Neshza
ID 205095486 © Edhar Yralaits | Dreamstime.com; ID 19046528 © Ambro10 | Dreamstime.com; Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA Press/Newscom; Illustration 162856543 © Olga Kurbatova | Dreamstime.com; Photo 24084034 © Brandon Bourdages | Dreamstime.com; ID 5558701 © Lisa F. Young | Dreamstime.com; Gado Images/Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA/Newscom; Chinese police hat: Photo 42782461 © Andrgolb | Dreamstime.com; Photo 60573926 © Andrew Zimmer | Dreamstime.com, Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/Newscom; ID 74917942 © Anna Rassadnikova | Dreamstime.com; Photo 136871918 © Boarding1now | Dreamstime.com, Photo 6858813 © Rui Matos | Dreamstime.com; Photo 52032766 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com; FEATURECHINA/GEORGE NG; Photo 62379681 © Andreykuzmin | Dreamstime.com; ID 144126101 © Vitalij Kopa | Dreamstime.com; ID 45296248 © Diana Eller | Dreamstime.com; Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA Press/Newscom; ID 21378350 © Edwardgerges | Dreamstime.com; ID 173253879 © Chernetskaya | Dreamstime.com; ID 205259038 © Edhar Yralaits | Dreamstime.com; ID 78226288 © Exopixel | Dreamstime.com; Photo 77849095 © Kalina Vova | Dreamstime.com; Photo 190393118 © Surasak | Dreamstime.com; ID 5230945 © Momentsintime | Dreamstime.com; ID 141753965 © Ralf Geithe | Dreamstime.com; 188726286 © Viktoria123 | Dreamstime.com; ID 131694198 © Rdonar | Dreamstime.com; ID 4205335 © Chaoss | Dreamstime.com, ID 101082526 © Penchan Pumila | Dreamstime.com; ID 132226276 © Ruslan Gilmanshin | Dreamstime.com, ID 124848295 © Crisfotolux | Dreamstime.com, ID 60104598 © Magryt | Dreamstime.com; ID 205095461 © Edhar Yralaits | Dreamstime.com; LiPo Ching/TNS/Newscom, Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Avalon.red/Newscom, JOHN ANGELILLO/UPI/Newscom; Photo 180096291 © Elena Gurova | Dreamstime.com, Photo 108249005 © Milkos | Dreamstime.com; Photo 148350813 © Andreas Häuslbetz | Dreamstime.com; Jose Fajardo/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Chris Martinez/La Opinión/Newscom; Orange County Register/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Ian Gavan/Starstock/Photoshot/Newscom; 21282560 © Antonio Ros | Dreamstime.com; Photo 32430041 © Tmcphotos | Dreamstime.com; Photo 199563411 © Aleksandr Faustov | Dreamstime.com, Photo 188272779 © Roman Samborskyi | Dreamstime.com, Photo 29778667 © Bevan Goldswain | Dreamstime.com; Photo 69643526 © Fashionstock .com | Dreamstime.com; Photo 25350293 © Fernando Gregory | Dreamstime.com; Photo 13172044 © Irina Kardasheva | Dreamstime.com; Photo 189848821 © Ericaimama | Dreamstime.com; Photo 7026547 © Lawcain | Dreamstime.com; Photo 14904003 © Vgstudio | Dreamstime.com; 11634139 © Nina Vaclavova | Dreamstime.com; Photo 178606668 © Steveheap | Dreamstime.com; Elevator buttons: Photo 93242861 © Photoz83 | Dreamstime.com; Keyhole: ID 22746911 © Alhovik | Dreamstime.com; Hector Amezcua/TNS/Newscom; Photo 34979210 © Stockyimages | Dreamstime.com; Photo 30277854 © Violanda | Dreamstime.com; Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/Newscom; ID 180767732 © Gillian08 | Dreamstime.com; ID 180767787 © Gillian08 | Dreamstime.com; Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/Newscom, Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/Newscom; Photo 52033824 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com; Photo 183345143 © Elena Shitikova | Dreamstime.com, Photo 15033995 © Cornelius20 | Dreamstime.com; ID 44940872 © Olga Kovalenko | Dreamstime.com; ID 96739013 © Mimagephotography | Dreamstime.com; ID 188272729 © Roman Samborskyi | Dreamstime.com; ID 134074626 © Adwo | Dreamstime.com; Hector Amezcua/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Photo 112612940 © Sergunt | Dreamstime.com; BSIP/Photoshot/Newscom; Randall Benton/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Fred Greaves/Reuters/Newscom; Sacramento County Sheriff"s Depa/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Randy Pench/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Credit: John Decker/ZUMA Press/Newscom; S.K. Vemmer/KRT/Newscom; Credit: Eugene Garcia/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Claude Cortier/agefotostock/Newscom, Mehau Kulyk/Science Photo Library/Newscom; ID 8855416 © Aleksandr Stennikov | Dreamstime.com; Laura A. Oda/TNS/Newscom; Chuck Fadely/Miami Herald UPI Photo Service/Newscom, Chuck Fadely/KRT/Newscom; Michael Mcmullan/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Rick Steele/ABACA/Newscom; ID 188826730 © Andreistanescu | Dreamstime.com; Photo 157565020 © Andreistanescu | Dreamstime.com; Tim Wagner/ZUMA Press/Newscom; David Bro/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Credit: Photo 155046427 © | Dreamstime.com, ID 155046481 © Nataliya Smirnova | Dreamstime.com, ID 155046905 © Nataliya Smirnova | Dreamstime.com; Photo 155046964 © | Dreamstime.com; Antonio DÂ´Albore/agefotostock/Newscom, Stephen Shaver/UPI/Newscom, Photo 15585025 © Donkeyru | Dreamstime.com, Photo 23802580 © Paop | Dreamstime.com, Photo 68066864 © Paop | Dreamstime.com, Photo 68065742 © Paop | Dreamstime.com, Photo 154635309 © Tiago Lopes Fernandez | Dreamstime.com; Photo 113583190 © Broodwolf | Dreamstime.com; Photo 13910505 © Anthony Baggett | Dreamstime.com, Photo 11305315 © Alexandre Miguel Da Silva Nunes | Dreamstime.com, Photo 150568017 © Phison Pussa | Dreamstime.com, Photo 118893722 © Stefano Carnevali | Dreamstime.com, San Fang/FeatureChina/Newscom; ChinaFotoPress/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Photo 63560034 © Lovell35 | Dreamstime.com; 168063673 © Aleksandr Andrushkiv | Dreamstime.com; 80415340 © Jonathan Mitchell | Dreamstime.com; Photo 128148582 © Ghanshyam P Ramchandani | Dreamstime.com; Photo 9018309 © Yury Shirokov | Dreamstime.com; PYMCA/UIG Universal Images Group/Newscom