Bills funding method to crack cold cases advance, but critics say impact will be slim without changes

cold case crime unsolved
Defense lawyers and prosecutors alike say the legislation needs fixing.

Lawmakers are advancing legislation that could move some of Florida’s 19,000-plus unsolved mysteries into the “case closed” pile, but experts on both sides of the justice system say some of the fine print will blunt its impact.

HB 453 by Rep. Adam Anderson and SB 678 by Sen. Jennifer Bradley would create a grant program at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to fund forensic genetic genealogy, an investigatory method that uses DNA testing to link unidentified human remains or a suspect’s genetic material to a living relative.

The emergent practice has been used to solve hundreds of cold cases nationwide and was thrust into the true crime zeitgeist a few years ago when it was used to identify the Golden State Killer, a turn of events that was chronicled in the HBO miniseries “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”

website maintained by Douglas College criminology professor Tracey Dowdeswell that tracks forensic genetic genealogy statistics says the practice has cracked more than 600 cases.

During a bill presentation in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week, Anderson, citing FDLE data, said there is DNA evidence — and thus the potential for forensic genetic genealogy testing — in 75% of Florida’s unsolved murders. Florida law enforcement also have the remains of about 900 unidentified persons.

The House and Senate bills have been met with unanimous approval in their committee hearings thus far — HB 453 cleared its second committee on Monday and has one more stop before the chamber floor; SB 678 was OK’d by the Criminal Justice Committee last month and has two stops to go.

But while the core concept behind the bills has broad support, defense lawyers and prosecutors alike are taking issue with one clause in the bill: “Funding is intended to be used for developing genealogy DNA profiles consisting of 100,000 or more markers.”

The 100,000-marker requirement, they say, has no scientific basis.

The science backs them up.

Forensic genetic genealogy in and of itself doesn’t produce damning evidence, it generates leads. And it doesn’t take 100,000 markers to establish a familial connection that gives law enforcement a new avenue to explore.

It was, after all, a cousin’s DNA that helped California police track down the Golden State Killer. First cousins share about 12.5% of DNA. That’s an average, however. In the wild, first cousins can share as little as 2% DNA — in layman’s terms, a six-figure profile is unnecessarily excessive.

Many of the cases cracked by forensic genetic genealogy did so with a tenth as many markers as the legislation calls for, and some of them significantly fewer than that — peer-reviewed research has demonstrated as few as 7,000 markers can support investigations, whether it be exonerating the accused or convicting the perpetrator.

The proposed requirement also far exceeds forensics standards established by boards such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, The Organization of Scientific Areas Committees for Forensic Science and the Scientific Working Group for DNA Analysis Methods.

The opposition to the 100,000-marker requirement boils down to a question of resources. The handful of labs that offer 100,000-marker tests charge premium prices. If the state sticks with those requirements, fewer DNA tests could be completed with the money lawmakers appropriate and, ultimately, fewer cases could be solved using this novel technique.

Another shortcoming of the bill is that it does not address laboratory accreditation, and opponents say ISO/IEC accreditation and adherence to FBI QAS standards are integral to forensic DNA testing and court admissibility for prosecution.

The marker provision combined with the lack of specific accreditation standards have provoked fears of an unintended synergy — by legislatively establishing a preferred standard and method for forensic genealogical testing, the state could jeopardize hundreds of tried cases that relied on current industry-accepted, scientifically valid standards, setting a national precedent that excludes most existing work in the field.

Opponents’ proposed solution: Subject forensic genealogical testing to the same accreditation standards and requirements that the state applies to other forensic DNA testing systems. Doing so, they say, would allow the grant program to do produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people — including victims, their families and Florida communities — without compromising evidentiary quality.

HB 453 next heads to the House Judiciary Committee. SB 678 is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

Drew Wilson

Drew Wilson covers legislative campaigns and fundraising for Florida Politics. He is a former editor at The Independent Florida Alligator and business correspondent at The Hollywood Reporter. Wilson, a University of Florida alumnus, covered the state economy and Legislature for LobbyTools and The Florida Current prior to joining Florida Politics.


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704