How do you get arrested on murder charges for eating a hot dog? Hint: DNA Evidence
Eating a hotdog is not only bad for your health but can also be bad for your freedom. 52-year-old Jerry Westrom of Minnesota is facing murder charges after eating a hot dog at his daughter’s hockey game this month. After finishing a hotdog, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and tossed it in the trash. Unbeknownst to Westrom, he was under surveillance for a 1993 unsolved homicide.
The police collected the remains of the hotdog and the napkin that Westrom used to wipe his mouth. They then compared his DNA from the napkin to unknown DNA found at the scene of the 1993 homicide. The results linked Westrom to the cold case murder. He was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Jeanne Ann Childs, a 35-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in a Minneapolis apartment nearly 26 years earlier.
Genealogy sites expand DNA database
But how did law enforcement initially focus on Westrom as a suspect? It appears that a well-known but unnamed genealogy search website, i.e. Ancestry.com or Family Tree DNA, shared its DNA database with law enforcement without informing customers. Apparently Westrom, or a close relative, submitted DNA for genetic background information to the site and the information was later turned over to law enforcement. With the DNA now in the law enforcement database, police were able to compare unknown DNA evidence from the 1993 unsolved homicide, identifying Westrom and another man as possible suspects.
Westrom lived in the Twin Cities in the early 90’s, and he was convicted of soliciting a prostitute in 2016. This was significant because the victim of the 1993 homicide was working as a prostitute at the time of her death. Based upon the DNA match, law enforcement began to follow Westrom in hopes of surreptitiously obtaining a DNA sample.
When he bought the hotdog at the hockey game, the law enforcement officers got lucky and were able to obtain DNA evidence.
Is sharing DNA information legal? Can it be used as DNA Evidence?
Genetic testing companies’ sharing of DNA databases with law enforcement is a controversial matter. As noted in a February 4, 2019 article from the New York Times, the president of Family Tree DNA, one of the country’s largest at-home genetic testing companies, issued an apology to its users for failing to disclose that it was sharing DNA data with federal investigators working to solve violent crimes.
Unfortunately for Westrom, sharing of DNA from ancestry sites like Family Tree DNA, although controversial, is probably not a violation of privacy rights nor is it an unlawful search under the U.S. Constitution. Westrom, or a close relative, voluntarily sent his or her DNA information to an ancestry site, knowing that it would be available to the public for comparisons in identifying possible relatives and/or ancestry. One could argue that this is no different than posting photos on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Once personal information is voluntarily disclosed via the Internet, courts are reluctant to hold that the sender maintains a privacy interest.
As such, Mr. Westrom’s hotdog craving could very well have resulted in his spending the rest of his life in prison.
If you have any questions regarding criminal charges arising from traffic stops or drug charges, contact Columbus, Ohio criminal defense lawyer Joe Edwards at 614-309-0243. Attorney Edwards has over 25 years of experience representing individuals at the state and federal levels. Federal lawyer and Columbus, Ohio Criminal Defense Law Firm.