11 December 2022

Justice delayed but not denied:
Investigative genetic genealogy

It’s that time of year when people think about interesting presents to give and you might have hit on a unique idea: DNA testing. Perhaps you want family and friends to find out about health risks. Perhaps you saw an advertisement and thought this saves you from going into crowded malls or because someone you know is a history buff and this is what they want. Whatever the reason, by getting DNA tests on yourself or others, you’ve joined millions of people around the world who send off a swab of their cheek or a saliva sample and get information using their DNA.

With your DNA test you’ve done something that you probably never thought you’d do: help catch criminals by solving cold cases. 

In December 1983, Sean McCowan and his brother stayed overnight at the apartment of his sister, 22-year-old Erin Gilmour, "She … would do that frequently, we would sort of go over there and spend the night and just hang out with her and then we'd all climb into bed together and watch movies and eat popcorn," said Sean McCowan, who was 13 years old when his sister was killed. "It was five days before Christmas, and so … we all woke up the next morning. Erin drove my brother Kaelin back … to my mom's house. And I ... went out actually to do some Christmas shopping. And we said our goodbyes and that was the last time I saw her.” 

That evening, Erin was brutally raped and murdered in the same apartment where she and her brothers watched movies and ate popcorn the night before.

Four months earlier, in August of 1983, Susan Tice, 45, was also brutally raped and murdered in her Toronto home.

”My mom was supposed to have dinner with my aunt and uncle and when she didn't show up, he went to the house to find out where she was," said her daughter, Christian Tice, who was 16 at the time. "We had like the best family… we were very, very close… we did everything together. We were one of those houses where everybody else's friends were always over… And everyone called my mom Mrs. T or Ma.” 

In 2000, DNA technology showed that one person was responsible for both crimes but police were still unable to identify the man.

In November 2022, almost four decades later, Joseph George Sutherland was arrested and charged with these two brutal crimes. 

How were they able to identify and arrest Sutherland? 

“In 2019, police began using a technique called "investigative genetic genealogy” to identify the suspect's family group. The process involves cross-referencing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA samples voluntarily submitted to services like 23andMe or Ancestry.ca and then uploaded to open-source databases.”

Essentially, this arrest was made possible by the millions of people who got DNA tests for many reasons but none of them to finally jail a brutal rapist and murderer.

So, when you buy a DNA test for yourself or someone you care about, you’re not only finding out interesting things about health and family history. You are helping find criminals who would otherwise have walked free. 

Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, lead investigator on the cold case, “called the investigation the "most complex" case he's worked in his 25 years on the force and credited the recent development to genetic genealogy. He said that Sutherland had never previously been a person of interest in the killings. "If we hadn't utilized this technology, we never would have came to his name.”

There have been many valid privacy concerns about the DNA databases of companies that provide these tests. However, the use of these data bases to catch criminals, in my opinion, is not merely fair but also just. Sutherland has walked freely among us for over four decades while those who loved his two victims have had justice denied to them. Using databases to finally arrest and try Sutherland is fair and just to his victims and their families.

The most powerful argument to support using these databases in this way, are the pictures of Sutherland’s victims. These photos are over 40 years old. Both Erin Gilmour and  Susan Tice should have had many more photos taken of them since 1983, when they became frozen in time because they were brutally murdered.


  1. You are absolutely right. Murderers have no privacy rights.

    1. Hi Chris, For some reason I end up as anonymous but it's Mary. Thank you for that comment. Privacy in these matters are complex, but I agree. The fact that Sutherland has been free for so long is wrong, and now, him being caught feels right.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn11 December, 2022 16:59

    Great blog post & I agree with you about the privacy question. My late mother had her DNA tested a few years back & discovered among other things that she was some small percent Neanderthal. She was quite chuffed about it. I'm thinking of getting my own DNA tested & if these things work the way I think they do, I may or may not have Neanderthal DNA myself. ?

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Elizabeth. I suspect we all might be a tad Neanderthal. Mary

  3. I agree, murderers (and I would add, rapists) have no privacy rights. I got DNA testing and have Neanderthal and Denisovian genes, so I tell people that my ancestors got around. Meanwhile, I have no matches whatsoever closer than 6th cousins with anyone on the Ancestry.com database. Apparently I may be the last of my line...

    1. I agree. No privacy rights. Rights are earned. Thanks for reading. Mary

  4. You've got some good comments, Mary. I'd heard about the arrest but didn't know the backstory. Thanks for filling in blanks.
    I'm torn about about the sharing of such data.. On the one hand, I want the damned murderers caught, but on the other, I fear government abuse vis-à-vis DNA testing. And yet again, people would be shocked how much data is stored in public and private databases around the world, so perhaps DNA would be, literally, a drop in the bucket.
    Appreciated the article, Mary.

    1. Thank you, Leigh. I'm torn too but in this case, not at all. You're more aware of the ways this can be abused but I can think of a few ways. Also, Leigh, why can't I comment? Any help on that? Mary

    2. Mary, sometimes Blogger takes it in its silly head to not allow me to comment, so I'm still not certain what's going on except it's the 2nd Sunday of the month with the Moon in Aquarius and the outside temperature is 22°±3 during the hours of 13:01 and 12:59. I think.


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