Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Genetic genealogy and civil liberties

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Genetic genealogy and civil liberties
Bryan Porter in his office at the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

In August 2014, Jesse Bjerke sexually assaulted a lifeguard at a pool in Fairfax County at gunpoint. During this assault, he injected his victim with a powerful anesthetic. Two years later, in September 2016, he raped another life-guard at gunpoint in the City of Alexandria.

In both assaults, he targeted young women from other countries who were working in the U.S. for the summer. Bjerke did not know his victims and, although police recovered his DNA from both crime scenes, since he had never been previously arrested, his DNA was not on file and police were unable to identify him. With no witnesses and no forensic evidence to identify the serial rapist, it appeared the investigation was at an end.

Alexandria detectives, alarmed at the two lives forever changed by random violence and concerned that, at any moment, another young woman might be raped, refused to let the investigation stand idle. Instead, they turned to a promising new investigative tool known as genetic genealogy.

Soon, detectives were working with a private company named Parabon, whose proprietary algorithms were able to take the suspect’s DNA profile and suggest possible relatives for him from those who had uploaded their DNA to a publicly accessible online database.

Through the DNA work of Parabon and the determination of detectives, Bjerke, a nurse at a local hospital, was identified as the prime suspect. Police surreptitiously recovered Bjerke’s DNA from discarded items he had handled and confirmed, through DNA analysis, he was the perpetrator.

Bjerke was soon arrested and, faced with the strength of the evidence against him, elected to plead guilty. As part of his plea agreement, Bjerke agreed to waive any jurisdictional objection to the Fairfax case being disposed on in an Alexandria court.

On Oct. 2, 2020, Bjerke was sentenced in Alexandria Circuit Court to serve a total sentence of 65 years in prison for both assaults. The citizenry was well-served by the quality and professionalism of the Alexandria Police Department in this case and, through their will and determination, the detectives can rest assured that a serial rapist can no longer act with impunity and irrevocably damage additional lives.

While genetic genealogy has been used to solve a handful of crimes throughout the country, for example, the infamous Golden State killer case in California, the Bjerke case was apparently the first time the technique was used in Northern Virginia to solve a crime.

While the benefits of genetic genealogy are obvious – to put it plainly, if the technique did not exist a rapist would be at liberty today, free to victimize other young women – there are valid concerns about the protection of civil

liberties when the technique is used. To that end, my office worked closely with the APD to self impose guidelines limiting the circumstances in which genetic genealogy will be used to investigate cases. The technique will only be used in the most serious cases, where all other investigative leads have failed.

Our agreement specifically limits the use of genetic genealogy to homicide cases or felony sex offenses or to identify the remains of a suspected homicide victim. The technique will not be used to investigate non-violent offenses.

Many of the concerns about civil liberties involve the situation in which people submit their DNA to an online database to research their family tree with no idea it may be used by law enforcement to solve crimes. Given that this concern is valid, our agreement mandates that any private company working with detectives must identify themselves as working with law enforcement before searching an online database.

Furthermore, Alexandria police will only search online databases that provide explicit notice to their service users and the public that law enforcement may use their database to investigate crimes.

It is vitally important for law enforcement leaders to utilize ground-breaking investigative techniques to solve violent crimes. It is equally important the same leaders understand the delicate balance between investigation and the protection of civil liberties.

I am gratified that in Alexandria we are “ahead of the curve” in that my office and the police department have collectively agreed to constraints on our use of genetic genealogy as an investigative tool. With those guidelines in mind, there is no doubt that genealogy is a powerful new weapon against the scourge of sexual assault.

The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.