“No, you can’t have the Touch DNA results in time for the next commercial. It really does take time.” That’s one of the phrases Colleen Fitzpatrick has found herself saying to television writers and producers as she consults on a new crime drama inspired by her life and work.
Fitzpatrick, an eccentric and endlessly interesting scientist, is best known as the mother of modern forensic genealogy. She founded IdentiFinders International and is also the co-founder, along with partner Margaret Press, of DNA Doe Project, an all-volunteer organization that uses genetic genealogy to identify John and Jane Does. Since it’s inception in 2017, DNA Doe has identified 25 people, including a suspected murderer who had died in 1916.
Given their line of work, it makes sense that the small screen is interested in Fitzpatrick and Press. Fitzpatrick said the duo has had hundreds of television offers through the years, but there was always a problem: the producers were interested in a true crime series.
“When we have a Doe we identify, the last thing we want to do is parade their families in front of cameras. We have to protect the families,” Fitzpatrick told Forensic. “Given what we do, it’s also not practical to supply a story a week.”
Then, in Spring 2019, Paramount and Fox came around with an offer for a fictionalized series, which made Fitzpatrick and Press much more comfortable and open to the opportunity.
“With fiction shows we can help the writers portray how this all works, yet try to steer them away from storylines that hit too close to home,” Press told Forensic. “We don’t want any families harassed because an audience might recognize a detail that leads to that family. When you’re sticking to fiction a writer can create an engaging story that becomes a vessel for a bit of education, or provokes some thought.” As a crime novelist herself, Press would know.
Thus, the ball began rolling for the TV show that would come to be called Blood Relative. There are generally three hurdles to making a TV show: the script must be accepted by the studio, then the pilot, then the series. Fitzpatrick and Press had the script in hand by Thanksgiving 2019 and after many revisions, it was accepted by the studio, clearing the first test. Fitzpatrick says the pilot episode was contingent on casting—which is good given that the show has an all-star lineup.
Melissa Leo, best known for her Academy Award-winning performance in the 2010 film The Fighter, has been cast as Dr. Louise Kelly, a forensic genealogy expert who works with law enforcement, including her brother (actor Tate Donovan), to solve cases. The show’s Kelly is inspired and, to an extent, based on Fitzpatrick.
“You can’t miss the similarities,” Fitzpatrick said. “[Kelly] is a high-IQ scientist from New Orleans that wrote a book on forensic genealogy and is one of the founders of the field. She wears a SCOTTeVEST and even has my same high school science project. My brother is in law enforcement, as is [Kelly’s]. There are also certain family dynamics within the context of the characters that are very similar to our family dynamics.”
Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s signature SCOTTeVEST made the cut, which isn’t too surprising if you’ve ever met her. Meanwhile, Press’ character is a departure from the real-life version of her, but she will still be there as a sister-in-arms with Leo’s version of Fitzpatrick.
The plots of Blood Relative will be inspired mostly by work done at DNA Doe Project, but also Fitzpatrick’s IdentiFinders International. Importantly, Fitzpatrick and Press will be consulting on the scripts to ensure the scientific accuracy of the show.
“Getting the science right is always a good thing, but especially with this field, and the misconceptions and controversy surrounding forensic genealogy. We’re doing our best, and to their credit the writers listen to us where there is wiggle room in the script,” Press said.
In the pilot script, for example, Fitzpatrick said there were questions the duo had to answer for the writers regarding how Touch DNA works—and how it doesn’t.
“We help with that stuff and we make suggestions on a different spin that would be more interesting to their audience,” Fitzpatrick said. “We bring in our experience of, ‘no it doesn’t work that way.' You can’t just take a missing person’s toothbrush and put into GEDmatch.”
Fitzpatrick said she isn’t nervous about parts of her life being represented on the small screen, although there were elements regarding family interactions in the first few scripts that she had to nix as ‘too close to home.’
“The character is close enough to me,” she said. “The audience will not know where reality ends and the creative part of the character begins.”
As time goes on, Fitzpatrick and Press anticipate the show departing from their stories more and more. Still, this is the first TV show solely about forensic genealogy. When Fitzpatrick literally wrote the book on forensic genealogy in 2005, a TV show based on the technology was far beyond expectations.
“It’s a terrific opportunity,” Press said. “The public is curious about genetic genealogy now more than ever. Interest has been building with the popularity of consumer DNA testing in recent years. We know many people who spit in tubes never bother to log back in and check their results. But now, people are hearing about so many cold cases being solved and they are slowly realizing that one has to do with the other. They spit, we solve. We love when people are inspired to learn. When a forensic subject also becomes personal, that’s a great motivator.”
Photo: Fitzpatrick (left) and Press (right). Credit: DNA Doe Project