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Toronto Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith of the force's homicide and missing persons unit cold case section speaks during a press conference in Toronto on Nov. 28, 2022. Toronto police arrested a 61-year-old man in the DNA-linked cold-case murders of Erin Gilmour and Susan Tice.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

For years, police had a DNA clue that could have helped them solve the 1983 murders of two Toronto women, but federal laws blocked their ability to determine if an unidentified criminal was a close relative of an offender whose DNA was already on file – a process called “familial testing.”

Parliament has been considering legislation aimed at allowing police more DNA powers, including familial searching, within the National DNA Data Bank. These searches would be limited to serious crimes where an offender could, if identified, eventually receive a jail sentence of more than 14 years.

However, a majority of members on a Senate committee examining Bill S-231 last month voted to continue barring this practice, saying it could be damaging to entire families or have a disproportionately negative impact on racialized communities.

In the 1983 cases, police say that more than a decade ago, the brother of Joseph George Sutherland had been arrested for criminal offences that caused his DNA to be added to the national databank, which police can search for leads about unsolved crimes.

Last year, Mr. Sutherland – who had not himself before been convicted of any crimes – pleaded guilty to the killings of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour after investigators found a match of crime-scene evidence by searching emerging private-sector DNA databases. Police say both women were sexually assaulted before they were killed. Mr. Sutherland is scheduled for a sentencing hearing in March, where he will receive a life sentence for his crimes.

Detective Sergeant Stephen Smith, who heads the Toronto Police cold-case unit that caught Mr. Sutherland, said in an interview that police could have closed that case much sooner had his team been allowed to search the national databank for a familial relationship – rather than an exact match – of the DNA found at the scenes of the 1983 murders.

“If familial searching was available in 2011, we would have identified the family,” Det. Sgt. Smith told The Globe and Mail, explaining that the DNA profile of Mr. Sutherland’s brother was added to the databank around that time.

Such a lead, he said, could have saved police years of time and resources in tracking down Mr. Sutherland. He added that it could have also saved relatives of the two murdered women years of pain over the lingering mystery of the killer’s identity

Toronto police are using new investigative genetic genealogy techniques to help crack cold cases, including historical homicides. In November 2022, detectives said they used these methods to identify a suspect in a Northern Ontario community in connection with two 1983 killings in Toronto.

The Globe and Mail

On Parliament Hill last fall, police, prosecutors and national-databank administrators spoke in support of the legislation.

Det. Sgt. Smith testified to the Senate in November in favour of familial testing of the national databank’s convicted-offenders index to see if people in that database could be parents, siblings or children of unidentified killers.

“We would be able to match that up, go back to traditional policing means to ensure that that person is actually the offender and, if so, arrest that person,” he testified at the time.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) told the Senate that such tools could potentially help clear wrongfully convicted Indigenous people and, also, unmask uncaptured killers of missing and murdered women.

“The types of cases that are likely to be left unsolved are the ones that disproportionately impact Indigenous women,” NWAC president Carol McBride told the Senate in November.

During a Dec. 7 vote, however, a majority of members at the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee voted to strike out many of the bill’s key clauses amid concerns that expanded DNA searches could cause disproportionate harm to groups – including Indigenous people.

“The overrepresentation that is currently baked into this system only feels like it’s going to be amplified by the inclusion of familial searches, so I’m arguing against voting for this particular clause,” said independent Senator Bernadette Clement.

Now, the Senate must decide whether to move the bill forward. But dissenting Conservative Senator Denise Batters says her committee colleagues have watered down an important upgrade to Canada’s criminal laws.

“We had the chance to make a real change, which could have significantly assisted police in solving murders,” said Ms. Batters in an interview. She said she feels that the committee has “gutted” the legislation.

In late December, The Globe and Toronto Star reported on police warrant materials involving Mr. Sutherland that were then unsealed by the Ontario Superior Court. These documents tell a detailed inside story of the yearslong police investigation into the 1983 murders.

In 2019, Toronto Police began reinvestigating the murders by relying on new investigative genetic-genealogy techniques.

Such methods allow police to conduct familial searches of crime-scene evidence by running it through databases holding DNA profiles about the public at large. These techniques, which have come to the fore only in the past five years, involve databases that are privately held and not subjected to the legislated checks and balances that surround government-run databases.

By early 2021, Toronto Police were fixating on a family of five brothers living in Moosonee, Ont., as the only potential suspects in the 1983 homicides. Yet while these brothers all had similar biological material, only one of their DNA profiles could match that of the unidentified offender.

The released records show that detectives took nearly two more years to study each sibling by gathering their DNA, at times through surreptitious means, to learn who could be considered culpable.

It was through this process of elimination that police learned that one deceased sibling, while innocent of the 1983 crimes, was a convicted offender whose DNA was in the national databank. (The released documents don’t say what the crimes were or when they transpired.)

In late 2022, detectives flew to Moosonee with a judicial warrant directing the sole remaining suspect – Mr. Sutherland – to provide them with a blood sample. Hours later, he admitted he killed the women nearly 40 years earlier.

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