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Genetic genealogy database leads to exoneration of Idaho man

by | Aug 2, 2019 | Wrongful Convictions

We’ve discussed on this blog how genealogy databases like GEDmatch warehouse the DNA results of huge numbers of people who have taken part in genetic testing for genealogy purposes.

GEDmatch and similar databases collect DNA profiles from 23andMe, Ancestry.com and other commercial DNA testing sites and publish them online. There, law enforcement can search the DNA results for matches to DNA in cold cases. They can potentially extrapolate a cold-case DNA match to even distant relatives who might be in the database.

This has led to the question of who owns the genetic information submitted to these genealogy companies and whether it should be available to the public and law enforcement. Currently, no law protects the overall privacy of genetic information or limits law enforcement use of it.

Law enforcement is using these databases now, regardless of the privacy and civil rights concerns.

Now, however, people will also be accessing genealogy databases in an effort to exonerate innocent people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes.

In what is thought to be the first case of its kind, a genealogy database was used to exonerate an Idaho man who was convicted of a 1996 rape and murder. Christopher Tapp was arrested despite no physical evidence tying him to the crime.

Over the course of three and a half weeks, police interrogated Tapp nine times, or a total of 25 hours. The interrogators threatened Tapp with life in prison or the death penalty if he didn’t confess to the crime. They promised him immunity — then threatened to take that promise back. They promised leniency if he confessed. They administered polygraph tests, although those are not admissible in court. They attacked his memory and fed him information about the crime.

During the interrogation, Tapp told six different stories in an effort to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear.

One expert in police interrogations considers Tapp’s confession “one of the most contaminated confessions” he had seen in over 15 years of reviewing interrogations.

Mother of victim plays a pivotal role

It’s crucial to realize that when someone is falsely convicted, the real perpetrator often goes free. The mother of the victim in Tapp’s alleged crime kept pushing for justice, even pushing back against Tapp’s conviction. Presumably because of this pressure, the police continued to work the case even after Tapp’s confession.

Ultimately, the police submitted a somewhat-decayed sample from the crime scene to a genetic database and found a new suspect — a man who had lived across the street from the victim in 1996. That man has now confessed to the crime.

All the charges against Tapp have now been dismissed. He spent 20 years in prison. One has to wonder why even the mother of the victim could see the flaws in Tapp’s confession, when police, prosecutors and judges failed to acknowledge them. They let the real perpetrator go free for 20 years while an innocent man languished in prison. 

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