One might wonder if it’s still possible to get away with murder in the year 2023 with the recent convictions in so many formerly cold cases, thanks to innovations in genetic genealogy. But they would be mistaken, according to Jacob Rooksby, Gonzaga University’s School of Law dean.
While the technology represents a paradigm shift in criminal investigations around the country, good old -fashioned detective work and determination are still crucial to solving a case, Rooksby said.
Such was the case for Detective Jim Scharf.
Scharf is a central figure in author Ed Humes’ latest book, “The Forever Witness,” which Rooksby and the author will both discuss in further detail on Tuesday at a Northwest Passages event.
“The Forever Witness,” published in November, tells the story of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, a Canadian couple who were killed while traveling to Seattle in 1987. There were few clues and no witnesses. “The perfect crime,” as Humes described it.
But with help from Parabon NanoLabs, Detective Jim Scharf helped solve the case. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of a man in May 2018 who was later convicted of the couple’s murder.
“It’s a story about history, and the impact tragic events have on people’s lives,” said Rooksby, who said “true crime” is not his go-to genre. “It’s reminiscent of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood.’ The big difference is (Humes) doesn’t have a chance to interview the killer, but he does a lot of archival research. It draws in readers for whom this might not be their primary reading material.”
Rooksby, who has been dean of the law school since 2018, describes himself as a “champion of diversity who established the first LGBTQ+ rights legal clinic at a Catholic law school in the country” and “has worked to establish pay equity for faculty and provide equality of opportunity for students, faculty and staff alike.” His focus is on intellectual property and higher education and holds law licenses in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.
The murders of Van Cuylenborg and Cook in “The Forever Witness” are considered the first to ever be solved using the new technology. The strategy has paid off across the country, most prominently in California with the case of the Golden State Killer. It was also employed to solve the 62-year-old cold case of Candy Rogers, a 9-year-old Spokane girl who was killed in 1959.
Genetic genealogy also may have been used to arrest 28-year-old Bryan Kohberger, who is accused of murdering four University of Idaho students in November – though that information has not been described so far. Kohberger’s DNA, cellphone records and surveillance footage of his vehicle were all used together to arrest him in Pennsylvania, according to court documents.
“We’re seeing police departments being able to thread together traditional evidence coupled with more recent developments in videography in public spaces and now genetics, using all of those pieces to put together a mosaic,” Rooksby said. “I think it’s a matter of how our resources are deployed. There seems to be a better return on investment in pursuing genetic genealogy instead of just pursuing the traditional types of leads.”
Genetic genealogy gives smaller agencies, especially outside of large cities, “equal footing” that they wouldn’t ordinarily have when it comes to investigating crimes, Rooksby said. But it also creates substantive quandaries. .
Privacy is a big concern.
“On the one hand, everyone should feel we have a shared interest in helping close cold cases. At what cost to our privacy, though, is the question,” Rooksby said. “What are the potentials for overreach? To date, it seems this information has been used to solve actual murders and actual sexual assaults. The question is where do you draw the line.”
He asks whether genetic genealogy could be used to solve attempted murders or attempted sexual assaults, or if it could it be used to solve other types of crimes, such as burglary, too.
There are a lot of open questions for legislators and private genetics companies left to answer, which Humes also covers in “The Forever Witness.”
“I tell this to my law students: One of the great things about law school is we teach you a little bit about a lot of things,” Rooksby said. “This book is suggesting one of the things we need to teach is science. Lawyers need to be conversant in science in order to do their jobs.”