An Iron Range judge affirmed a private company's use of genealogy databases to identify a suspect in a 1986 Chisholm slaying, likely setting a precedent for investigations in Minnesota.
Judge Robert Friday on Wednesday denied a motion from Michael Allan Carbo Jr. to suppress the DNA evidence that allegedly identified him as the man responsible for the rape and killing of 38-year-old Nancy Daugherty.
Acknowledging that no Minnesota court had ever before ruled on the tactic, Friday concluded that he had no grounds to prohibit police and their contractors from tapping into increasingly popular databases that allow professional researchers and average citizens alike to conduct genealogical investigations.
While useful for building family trees and locating lost or unknown relatives, the databases have also become a controversial tool for law enforcement agencies looking to crack decades-old cold cases — perhaps most notably that of the "Golden State Killer," Joseph James DeAngelo, who was arrested in 2018 for committing at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes in California between 1973 and 1986.
Similarly, Carbo was never identified as a suspect in the first 34 years of investigation into Daugherty's death, according to court documents. He was only identified last year after authorities used two DNA databases to identify a relative who shared genetic material with the source of DNA recovered from the crime scene.
“While the court shares a great deal of the concerns raised by defendant as it relates to public policy surrounding the use, collection, (and) warehousing of genetic information, publicly and privately maintained genetic databases, and the ever-expanding technology and improvements in genetic identification, these are not the issues before this court to determine, and in fact are far outside its dominion," Friday wrote in his 15-page order.
DNA breakthrough came after years of dead ends
Daugherty, a mother of two, was found dead inside her Chisholm home on July 16, 1986. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled, with police indicating there were signs of struggle both inside and outside the residence.
Over the years, authorities said "well over" 100 DNA samples from potential suspects were tested, but none resulted in a match. It was in late 2019 and early 2020 that Chisholm police made the decision to contract with Parabon NanoLabs, a company based in the state of Virginia, in hopes of developing new leads.
The BCA released a sample of the suspect's semen to another company, AKESOgen, in order to develop a single nucleotide polymorphism profile, which allows experts to determine physical characteristics and ancestry of an individual. Parabon then used that profile to search privately maintained databases known as GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA.
PREVIOUSLY: Arrest made in 1986 Iron Range homicide
Carbo had never personally submitted a DNA sample to either database, but Parabon's searches reportedly turned up several genetic relatives, leading to the development of family trees and the identification of him as a suspect. Carbo, 18 at the time of Daugherty's killing, had lived within a mile of the victim and went to school with her children, court documents state.
BCA agents in July 2020 started surveillance of Carbo, retrieving trash bags he had thrown into a dumpster outside his Chisholm apartment building. Taking swabs of paper towels, facial tissues, Q-tips, a beer can and a SlimFast bottle, analysts said they were able to develop a DNA profile that was consistent with that of the suspect from 1986.
Agents then approached Carbo and asked him to voluntarily submit a sample, which again confirmed the match, according to court documents.
Judge: No right to privacy on 'abandoned' DNA
Defense attorney J.D. Schmid argued the case involved four separate warrantless searches in violation of his client's Fourth Amendment rights: the two database probes, the seizure of Carbo's trash and the development of the DNA profile from the items in the trash.
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Chris Florey disputed the defense's assertions, saying Carbo did not have a "legitimate expectation of privacy" during the genetic investigation or when he placed his trash in the dumpster.
Judge Friday agreed, saying a defendant retains no right to privacy or property interest in genetic material left at a crime scene.
“Once the evidence is abandoned, law enforcement was free to conduct any testing of the evidence it deemed appropriate including genetic testing and submitting it to Parabon for further investigation," Friday wrote.
The judge further addressed the argument that a person maintains a property interest in the DNA he or she shares with related family members, calling it "deeply disturbing" to suggest that a person could claim "partial ownership of another human being."
"Simply put, defendant does not have standing to challenge the expectation of privacy of a third party’s genetic material, even when it is in common with his own," Friday said. "There is no allegation that any of the profiles which contained common DNA with defendant were obtained without consent, making this no different than concluding a search is valid when two people reside in a home together and only one gives consent to law enforcement to search the home.”
The judge also rejected arguments regarding Carbo's trash, citing higher court rulings that a defendant loses the expectation of privacy after discarding items, especially in a shared dumpster.
Carbo, 53, remains in the St. Louis County Jail, with bail set at $1 million. Friday set a Nov. 22 scheduling conference to discuss the next steps with attorneys.