A father took an at-home DNA test. His son was then falsely accused of murder

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported last night,
genetic genealogy, the technique millions of people use to learn about their family
history, has now become a potent tool for police to crack previously unsolved crimes. Tonight, William Brangham is back to explore
the growing privacy debate around this new technique and why some people are urging that
we slow down. This is part of our regular series on the
Leading Edge of science and technology. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: After her dad died, Brandy
Jennings, like millions of Americans, used one of those DNA testing kits to learn more
about him and other relatives. BRANDY JENNINGS, Used DNA Database: I didn’t
have a close relationship with my dad, so maybe to find some family members and just
kind of learn about his side, you know? WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But when she got her results,
she tried something new. She uploaded them to a free public DNA database
to find out more about her dad’s side of the family. BRANDY JENNINGS: I uploaded it. And then it takes a few days for it to upload
and analyze, and I just kind of forgot about it. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, months later, Jennings
was shocked to learn that police had used her DNA information from that public Web site,
and used a technique called genetic genealogy to identify the killer in a 40-year-old cold
case in Iowa. WOMAN: Authorities arrested 64-year-old Jerry
Lynn Burns of Manchester this morning. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Turns out the murderer was
a distant, distant relative of Jennings. She thinks this new crime-fighting tool is
a great thing BRANDY JENNINGS: I mean, I think that every
person that has ever died or been killed or raped or whatever deserves to have justice
done. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But not everyone is so eager
to have their DNA end up in a police dragnet. Five years ago, Michael Usry Jr., largely
because his father had done DNA testing, ended up in a police station in downtown New Orleans. Police suspected he’d been involved in the
brutal 1996 rape and murder of an Idaho woman named Angie Dodge. MICHAEL USRY JR., Arrested Due to DNA Test:
In fact, almost the entire time they had me in the interrogation room with the one-way
mirror and all, they really didn’t want to give me any information. I kept asking questions, like, did somebody
I know do something horrible? And, finally, after maybe about an hour or
two, they had to just basically go, no, we think that you — you were involved with this
crime. And I’m like, me? WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Usry was targeted because
investigators, using an early form of genetic genealogy, linked his father’s DNA to DNA
from the murder scene. Usry’s dad seemed too old to be the killer,
but Michael was not. And then police learned Usry had traveled
through Idaho. Plus, he made these grisly, violent low-budget
films. But Usry knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. MICHAEL USRY JR.: It was almost like a dream. When it came crashing down was when they walked
out of the room and the biggest state policeman that I have ever seen in my life came in with
latex gloves and a cotton swab and said, I’m going to take your DNA now. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It took around a month for
police to process Usry’s DNA to see if it matched the DNA from the crime scene. So, you spend three or four weeks thinking,
I’m a suspect in a brutal murder. What were those weeks like for you? MICHAEL USRY JR.: It was scary. It was really scary, those three or four weeks,
just because I knew that I had not been involved in any crime. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When the DNA test results
came back, it wasn’t a match. Michael Usry Jr. was cleared. New York University’s Erin Murphy, who studies
genetics and the law, sees Usry’s ordeal as a cautionary tale. She says, remember, Michael Usry never tested
his own DNA. He was ensnared because his father had. And Murphy says those decisions, made by others,
cannot be undone. ERIN MURPHY, New York University School of
Law: You can change your phone number if someone starts harassing you. You can change your address if things get
really dark. You can do a lot of credit card cancellations
if things get into the wrong hands. But you can’t cancel your genome. You can’t edit your genome. And, more importantly, the decisions that
you make about your genomic privacy can be overridden by anybody, not only in your immediate
family tree. It’s not just, oh, my brother chooses to do
this, but my sixth cousin I never met chose to do this. That decision essentially erases the genetic
privacy of everyone else. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Curtis Rogers created the
biggest public database, called GEDmatch, that’s now used by police to solve crimes. Rogers initially built it so people like Brandy
Jennings could use their DNA results to build out their family tree. But after authorities in California used GEDmatch
to catch the Golden State Killer, Rogers began to slowly welcome police into the database. And, recently, a Florida judge granted a warrant
on one case to let police in even more. CURTIS ROGERS, Co-Founder, GEDmatch: For some
reason, people really get upset about serial killers, mass killers and serial rapists being
caught. I don’t know why this upsets people. But there’s some… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But they’re not upset about
people getting caught. They’re upset about somehow that they are
going to be roped into an investigation, they would feel unfairly, or that their privacy
would somehow be violated, right? CURTIS ROGERS: If they could see some of the
e-mails from these families that have had some closure, I can’t imagine that anyone
would say it’s the wrong thing to do. I can’t imagine anyone saying, I don’t want
to help these families. MICHAEL USRY JR.: Of course I want those people,
serial killers and murderers and terrible rapists, to be caught. It’s becoming such a powerful crime-fighting
tool. It’s also kind of — it scares me, personally,
because we see that it’s being used for other purposes besides finding your uncle. In my case, it’s used by the police to try
to link me to a crime. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Years after Michael Usry
Jr. was cleared, further genetic genealogy helped identify Angie Dodge’s real killer. A man named Brian Dripps, who was Dodge’s
neighbor, was convicted and is now in jail for life. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham.

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