Face to Face: CrimeCon 2021

Othram is headed to Austin for the 5th annual CrimeCon conference, to tell tales of previously "unsolvable" cold cases and seek help from the crowd.

Update 6/6/2021: My talk at CrimeCon was covered by Oxygen, for those who are interested in learning more about what was discussed.

The CrimeCon conference was founded in 2017 to provide an outlet for true crime enthusiasts to learn, share, and immerse themselves in all things true crime. CrimeCon was only in its second year when news of the Golden State Killer broke and that year the conference exposed folks to the people and technology behind the incredible break in that case. If you want to know more, I recently interviewed Paul Holes, one of the key players in that case.

My company, Othram, specializes in helping identify people from forensic evidence. We operate the only laboratory in the United States, purpose-built to apply the power of DNA sequencing to forensic evidence, particularly for use with human ID applications like Forensic Genetic Genealogy. I have written about how Othram accesses genetic information from evidence that has failed other methods — evidence that has been deemed “unsuitable for analysis”. Othram excels especially in older cases. For example, we helped NCMEC solve their oldest announced case. We also helped make an ID from about 20 human cells, the least amount of DNA used in a forensic genealogy case that has been publicly announced.

I met Kevin Balfe from Red Seat Ventures, the folks that created and operate CrimeCon and I was fascinated with his vision for the conference. I love the idea of engaging the crowd to tackle the enormous backlog of unidentified persons and unsolved crimes. While Othram works with law enforcement, its not uncommon for advocates and others to suggest cases to the Othram team. We also raise awareness and we crowdfund supporting work for cold cases at DNASolves. Kevin invited me to speak about Othram and DNASolves and it felt like the perfect fit. I hope this is the start to a long-term relationship between our groups. Expect to see more events in the future — there are limitless opportunities to work with the crowd to help advance cold cases and there is so much to be done — far beyond just funding a case.

If you are going to be at the conference this year, at the Fairmont Hotel in Austin, let’s connect! Reach out to us in the comments or you can also email us at solve@othram.com. I am giving a talk at 2.35pm central time but our team will be onsite Friday through Sunday to meet folks. Below is the abstract for my talk:

Closure for Families by Solving "Unsolvable" Cold Cases

For a long time it seemed as though decades-old cold cases might go unsolved forever. No justice for families, no punishment for perpetrators.

But the game has changed.

DNA left at crime scenes that was previously thought to be unusable is finding new life thanks to Othram, the first private lab to apply the power of modern parallel sequencing to forensic evidence. The number of cold cases that Othram is playing a part in reopening is astounding. From the 1974 murder of Carla Walker to the 1995 killing of Mary Catherine Edwards, Othram is partnering with law enforcement across the country to work on cases previously thought to be “unsolvable.” As Othram CEO David Mittelman told us recently, “It’s not a great time to be a rapist or murderer.”

This session will be part science and part cold case deep-dive, but all bad news for killers who’ve become accustomed to sleeping well at night. Come hear about the lab that is changing the course of history and learn how YOU can get involved in helping to decide which cases they take on next.

In my talk, I plan to share some success stories but beyond the successes and statistics, I want to focus on a really important point: crime scene DNA is finite and often there is not a lot to start with. When you test DNA you consume it. It is gone forever. You risk a case going cold forever if you use inadequate test methods and the test fails. When the test fails, you fail a family that has spent decades waiting for an answer. Forensic DNA cannot be processed the way consumer, medical, and research DNA samples are processed. For more on what makes forensic DNA particularly challenging to work with, see the case of Siobhan McGuinness.

I will be talking about our mission to digitize DNA evidence and to scale this powerful technology to tackle the hundreds of thousands of unsolved cases. True justice is not possible until the technology has been democratized for use by all agencies and cases.

I will also talk about how any citizen can be part of the next case solve by suggesting cases, sharing their DNA, and helping us fund cases. For a list of cases that need funding, follow this link to DNASolves. We have a wonderful group of folks that have supported many of the cases we have worked on and we hope to grow this group at CrimeCon and beyond.

See you all Friday!