The Spotlight: Genetic genealogy bringing justice to cold case victims and their families

More and more cold cases from decades ago are being solved with the help of DNA, and more killers who were once able to get away with murder are being convicted thanks to genetic genealogy. 

Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing, combined with traditional genealogy, to help identify ancestors and family members. Genetic genealogy is different from traditional forensics in investigations in that it relies on public information from databases like 23AndMe and AncestryDNA, while forensics uses material from crime scenes that has been analyzed in a lab.

A Washington state resident was the first person in the U.S. to be convicted of murder using genetic genealogy. 

56-year-old William Talbott was arrested in 2018 in connection to the double homicide of 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and 20-year-old Jay Cook, a young Canadian couple who disappeared during a visit to Seattle in November of 1987. 

A week after they were reported missing,  Van Cuylenborg's body was found dumped in Skagit County-- she had been raped and shot in the head. Cook's remains were found in Snohomish County on Thanksgiving of that year. 

Their murders remained unsolved until 2018, when a genetic genealogist at Parabon was able to use a DNA profile from Talbott's semen to build a family tree from public ancestry databases.

"He was definitely never a suspect. There was no reason for him to be suspected. He had no connection to the victims," said Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Forever Witness," Edward Humes. Humes was living in Seattle when Talbott's trial started 2019. He watched the court proceedings and was drawn to the case. 

"It's interesting that he lived a very sort of secluded life. He wasn't present in any social media. He disguised his true address when he filled out forms," Humes said.

But as Talbott and so many other killers have discovered in recent years, all it takes is a family member curious about their origins to put them in prison.

"The only thing that connected him to it was the fact that his distant relatives, well not that distant, second cousins or their equivalent relatives, for fun did a home DNA test to trace their ancestry," Humes described. 

Appeals court cites juror bias, overturns cold-case double murder conviction of SeaTac man

An appeals court in Washington state on Monday overturned the cold-case murder convictions against a man accused of killing a young Canadian couple in 1987, citing juror bias.

Last December, an appeals court overturned Talbott's conviction, but it had nothing to do with the DNA evidence-- the appeals court cited juror bias.

Snohomish County prosecutors appealed the ruling to the State Supreme Court and is awaiting their decision.

If the overturned conviction stands, Talbott would still face a new trial. He remains locked up as the ruling goes through the courts.  

"Science and good old-fashioned police work is making it harder and harder for these disturbed individuals can live in the shadows," said Laura Baanstra, Cook's sister who spoke at a press conference when Talbott was announced as a suspect. 

Cook's and Van Cuylenborg's families have publicly supported the use of DNA databanks for law enforcement purposes. Humes also points out that anytime you take an ancestry test, you are essentially crowd-sourcing solving crimes without even knowing it.

"I think we should have a national conversation about where this is going in the future, whether these databases should stay in private hands, which is unusual for a forensic database, or whether there should be a public project to create a law enforcement genealogy database. That conversation is just starting," Humes said. 

Watch the full episode of The Spotlight to see other cases, not just murder cases, where genetic genealogy either solves the case or brings detectives one step closer to doing so.