Sudbury

The pros and cons of advancing forensic technology to solve cold cases in northern Ontario

Police have been laying charges in historic homicides in Ontario recently, and investigators have hinted that advances in forensic technology may have played a key role. 

'The privacy issues have been somewhat lessened but it's still something to think about'

DNA test kits have boomed in North America over the last several years and have allowed websites to build a critical mass of DNA profiles. The four DNA websites that offer match services, Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, My Heritage, today have so many users that it is rare for someone not to find at least one distant relative. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Police have been laying charges in historic homicides in Ontario recently, and investigators have hinted that advances in forensic technology may have played a key role. 

A flurry of charges have been laid in northern Ontario relating to the Sudbury murder of Renee Sweeney and last week, Ontario Provincial Police laid a first degree charge in the 40-year-old cold case of Micheline St. Amour in East Ferris, near North Bay.

Michele Bobyn, a lecturer with the Department of Forensic Science at Laurentian University, says the developments aren't surprising.

Especially, she said, after Toronto police recently identified in October, the killer of nine-year-old Christine Jessop, who was abducted from Queensville, Ont., before being raped and killed in 1984. The case resulted in a years-long wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin.  

In July of 1980, 20-year-old Micheline St. Amour was found dead in an East Ferris Township home after being stabbed. (Submitted by the Ontario Provincial Police)

'It was only a matter of time'

"And a bunch of cases in the U.S., in the last couple of years, it was only a matter of time before it started happening here," Bobyn said. 

Cases like those involving ex-police officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., accused of being the Golden State Killer, a serial predator who terrorized much of California with a string of slayings, rapes and break-ins over 10 years, pleaded guilty on Monday to multiple murder and kidnapping charges.

There have finally been some new advances in forensic DNA technology that are kind of combining private and public labs.— Michele Bobyn, lecturer with the Department of Forensic Science at Laurentian University

"There have finally been some new advances in forensic DNA technology that are kind of combining private and public labs and a whole host of new DNA methods to generate some new investigative leads in cold cases." 

What are forensic investigators able to do now, which they couldn't before you might ask? To start, Bobyn said investigative techniques have become more efficient, rapid and more sensitive which require less samples. 

The school photo of nine-year-old Christine Jessop, who went missing in 1984. Toronto police announced they had solved the cold case in October 2020. (Handout)

'They're a lot more discriminatory'

"But these newer techniques, instead of looking at about 30 to 40 bits of DNA that vary from person to person, they can look at thousands or even hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of differences in the DNA sequences from one person to the next," Bobyn said, "So they're a lot more discriminatory as far as being able to tell people apart." 

To be plain, she said, the developments have helped to dramatically narrow down suspects in a way that hasn't been possible in the past.

The people who put their DNA profiles in these public databases did not do that with the intention of generating investigative leads.— Michele Bobyn, lecturer with the Department of Forensic Science at Laurentian University

"What they're doing now, is a technique they're calling genetic genealogy and it's basically a way of taking these hundreds of thousands of DNA differences and building family trees or pedigrees and comparing them to existing genealogy databases that are publicly available on the web and then combining those with traditional genealogy data like you would get on a genealogy website, for instance," she said. 

Using those family trees, she said, investigators look for potential people that might be related to DNA left behind at a crime scene, she added.

Renee Sweeney was stabbed to death in January 1998 while working in a store in Sudbury. (Supplied)

While the evolving technology is helping to solve years-long cases, Bobyn also noted that there are some privacy issues that go along with it. 

"These public DNA databases in the last couple of years when these techniques first started to be used in forensic cases," she said, "The people who put their DNA profiles in these public databases did not do that with the intention of generating investigative leads for police officers." 

Now, Bobyn said things have changed so that people who are contributing their DNA profiles to these databases must be informed that their data might be used by law enforcement for their investigations. 

"The privacy issues have been somewhat lessened but it's still something to think about because if you put your profile in essentially everybody in your family is also in those databases as well." 

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With files from Morning North

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