REPORT: Police told a mother her DNA would identify a dead relative. They arrested her son instead.

FEBRUARY 22, 2020

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VALDOSTA, Ga. — On an October morning in 2018, Eleanor Holmes and her husband left home to run an errand and found two men inside their front gate. They introduced themselves as detectives from Orlando, Florida, and said they needed the couple’s help.

Standing in the driveway, the casually dressed detectives said they were trying to identify someone who’d been found dead many years earlier, the Holmeses recalled. They were looking for the person’s relatives, and were using DNA and genealogical records to stitch together a family tree that they hoped would lead them to a name. Friendly and businesslike, they said they’d already got DNA samples from Eleanor Holmes’ sister and an aunt. And now they wanted hers.

The article goes on to state the following:

Holmes already knew about the detectives’ visit to her sister. It worried her that someone in her family had died without anyone knowing about it. She had relatives in Orlando, including a niece whom she hadn’t heard from in more than a decade. So she agreed.

The report states that Holmes willingly submitted to a quick cheek swab, the detectives left, and she thought nothing more of it until a few days later when she receive a frantic phone call from her son, Benjamin’s girlfriend.

Orlando police arrested Benjamin, 39, for the 2001 shooting death of college student, Christine Franke, using DNA and genealogical records to tie him to the crime. He and his parents say he is innocent.

CLICK HERE to read more of this detailed, exclusive report by NBC News.

NBC’s John Schuppe also provided the following information in a series of Twitter posts:

There’s a surge of attention lately on genetic genealogy, a new technique in which police combine consumer DNA databases and traditional genealogical searches to solve old rapes and murders. One aspect has received very little notice: 1/

It’s called target testing. When detectives and genealogists need help stitching together a family tree that will lead them to a suspect, they ask relatives who have nothing to do with the crime to give a DNA sample. 2/

The DNA can give investigators the info they need to identify the perpetrator of a violent crime. But asking innocent people to give DNA also raises privacy concerns. Those concerns are heightened when investigators use a ruse to obtain that DNA. 3/

Example: In 2018, Orlando police used genetic genealogy to solve the 2001 murder of Christine Franke. To police and Franke’s family, the arrest of Benjamin Holmes Jr. represents justice. But Holmes’ relatives say they were tricked into giving their DNA. 4/

The suspect’s mother and other relatives say detectives told them they needed their DNA to identify someone who’d died. Only after news broke of Holmes’ arrest did they realize the true story. 5/

None of this was illegal. Courts have ruled police can use ruses to obtain evidence. Many, including Franke’s family, believe they did what had to do to solve a terrible crime. But some lawyers question whether police violated the relatives’ privacy. 6/

And the relatives feel duped. The case raises this question: Should police mislead innocent people into giving their DNA?

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