THE EXPERT WITNESS - The law and economics of DNA: A case study


By Dr. John F. Sase
Gerard J. Senick,
Senior Editor
Julie Gale Sase, Proofreader

Violet: “I didn’t run Downton for thirty years to see it go—lock, stock, and barrel—to a stranger from God knows where!”

Cora: “Are we to be friends, then?”

Violet: “We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”

—Violet Crawley, dowager countess of Grantham, and her daughter-in-law Cora Crawley, countess of Grantham (“Downton Abbey,” Carnival Film & Television, Season One, Episode One, 2010)

On 6 March 2016, viewers on this side of “the Pond” watched the conclusion of the final season of “Downton Abbey”—a two-hour episode with a historic body-count of zero, which is unusual for this show. This dramatic series exported from England has gained a worldwide popularity over the past six years that rivals that of another English export (shall we say it?), the Beatles. Throughout this 52-episode series on the BBC, many of us have gained a greater depth of understanding of centuries-old European customs, entailment laws, and the family/social complexity of real-estate based economies as well as enjoying the rare wit of Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess.

In this month’s column, we turn our attention to a shorter example from my (Dr. Sase’s) confidential annals of Economics/Sociology/Law. This case reflects the intersection of “Downton Abbey” by Julian Fellowes, “Little Dorrit” and “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, and other works such as The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy. This particular puzzle unfolds from my case-study notes of the I2 Y-Haplogroup, which is an old genetic line said to be indigenous to Europe. More specifically, we will concern ourselves with descendants of the more recent mutation of I2a1b (per the International Society of Genetic Genealogy in their updated delineation of 2014). This subgroup is defined by the M-423 mutation that occurred before the branch lines separated approximately 10,000 years ago. However, we begin our tale in a more recent era. We feel that this story is worthy of novelization, a film script, or a television series as well as being fascinating from a legal perspective. We hope that you agree.

Case Summary
Disclaimer: “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental, and should not be construed.” Kurt Vonnegut, “Breakfast of Champions” (Delacorte Press, 1973)
Seven generations ago in Europe, Mr. F was a man of the old religion who prospered. As was done often at that time, he married a woman of the newer religion, a Ms. K. from a family of similar social stature. Given the custom in their marriage circle, their children were raised in the religious tradition of the mother.

The family had wealth but no real estate of great consequence. However, the occasion arose in which the eldest son married a daughter of the largest deed-holding family in their region. As the matter of estates was practiced at that time, this son-in-law was not given the deed to the land. Instead, he received property titles that would be passed along through the male descendants of this couple.

As has been the custom in many societies around the world, the eldest son of this couple would inherit the titles derived from the deeds held by the family of his maternal grandparents. Though his younger brother did not inherit any titles, he did receive adequate backing to start out on his own. This brother chose to migrate to the new State of Ohio in the American Midwest. He learned some trade skills, built a business upon them, married a Ms. R., and fathered a number of boys and girls.
The elder brother and his direct descendants remained in Europe for two additional generations, another forty to fifty years, before migrating to Michigan. By this generation, the two branches were second cousins to one another. Over the succeeding four decades, both branches of the family had migrated to Detroit. The elder line came with an heir and a spare while the younger line produced an heir and many spares. This group expanded that side of the family to a few hundred descendants in succeeding generations.

“As We Walked through Deep Pine Forests on a Silver Winters Morn / We Talked with Tribal Elders in the Most Subdued of Tones / How the Houses of the Old Land Had Scattered to Reform / in This New World at a New Time in This New Land We Call Home” —John Sase, “Silver Winters Morn” (from the private-label release Aessence, 1985)

Our case focuses on the generation of the fourth cousins. The elder line was reduced to one, while the younger line was expanded to many. Given the late-in-life conception of the one in the elder line, the line of succession that passed to the principal of the younger line had been established. The hereditary real-estate deeds and titles were left behind in a part of Europe that had undergone great upheaval between the 1880s and the 1940s. However, many believe that the European land-laws and deeds remain intact, both within that period and to the present day, with hereditary rights to property extending backward for at least three centuries.

At this juncture, our case changes in tone from storytelling that is reminiscent of Julian Fellowes to that of Charles Dickens. While a young child, the sole heir born to the elder line witnessed the murder of an adult male from the younger line. With the birth of the young child to the elder line, the adult male had transitioned from heir to spare. However, given their sufficient affluence and influence, the family of the adult male suppressed the account in the media to a short obituary reading that the victim had “died suddenly.” Few further details appeared and the funeral service was attended sparsely. It was rumored that the murder was committed by two males who may have been hired gunmen. Subsequently, additional details of the grizzly event were covered up. Many of those who were close to the persons and events believed that this obfuscation was created to protect the boy who witnessed the murder as well as other family members.

For the next four years, events that involved the major figures remained routine in comparison, more or less. Family attention turned to the establishment of various lines of succession to manage properties held by the younger line and its marriage circle. However, following a sequence of ordinary and not-so-ordinary happenstances, the mother of the remaining male offspring of the elder line passed away. Within months, dormant rumors dating to the year of the murder rose to the surface again. The assertion put forth through discrete gossip was that, because her husband was unable to conceive a child, the aging wife had an affair with either the man who was murdered or one of his close relatives for the purpose of conceiving an heir. Via back-fence logic, rumor purported that the sole child of the elder line was the illegitimate offspring of the younger line.  Hence, the elder line would be extinguished and the younger line would become the new elder line.

To compound matters, two brothers of the younger line and their spouses attempted to gain custody of the child. They attempted to take away the boy from the widowed father. They did this through a ploy involving two trumped-up assertions: that the father was an unfit parent due to sexual abuse of the child and that this man was not the biological father. The brothers claimed that the natural father was one of their own immediate kin. As was family custom, deliberation occurred behind closed doors. Meanwhile, the child who was the subject of contention was spirited away to another state to remain with a maternal aunt for a couple of months. During this time, no concrete plan for raising and educating the boy was proposed by those of the younger line.

When the boy returned to Michigan, the matter had been settled and he remained with his legal father. However, as part of the agreement, the child was not allowed to contact anyone from the junior branch; in addition, they were barred from contacting him. A barrier had been erected. Consequently, the uncertainty of paternity continued to reign without full resolution over succeeding decades. When the boy was in his sixties, he had his DNA tested. The results determined that it was highly probable that his legal father was his biological father. In addition, those who led the attack on the elder line of the tribe had done so with at least a misguided belief in gossip that had fermented for five decades. 

A Forensic Economic Inquiry
“There CAN be too much truth in every relationship.” Violet Crawley (“Downton Abby,” 2013, Season Four, Premier Episode)

The economics of real estate mentioned above deserve their own series of articles. Furthermore, the upheaval of property rights, deeds, and titles throughout Europe in the course of the past 150 years is but a drop in the bucket of time in comparison to the hiatus that existed from the fall of Jerusalem in Judea in 70 CE to its restoration in 1947 CE, an issue that remains far from finally being resolved. Therefore, in this month’s inquiry of the preceding illustration, we will limit our focus to matters that might be resolved in a modern court of law in the United States.

As a forensic economist, my (Dr. Sase’s) focus on a case as complex as the one summarized above will be a scratch on the surface in respect to the distinction between criminal and civil matters as well as the issues of liability and economic damages. The economic damages are the primary concern in my field of professional practice. Let us commence, then, with the matter of the murder that was witnessed by the child in the case summary above.

It may be that the criminal act of murder is unrelated to relevant civil matters. It also may be that any injury to the child-as-witness was unintended collateral damage. To my (Dr. Sase’s) knowledge, the boy was discovered hiding in a room adjacent to the crime scene. Apparently, the gunmen discovered him, roughed him up, slammed him against a wall a couple of times, and threatened to kill his parents if he told anyone what happened. In a murder trial, the two men would have been found guilty and sentenced accordingly. Any
injury to the child would have been considered an unfortunate event unless a responsible third-party could be indicted and be held responsible financially.

However, in past discussions to which I (Dr. Sase) have been party, complicating questions emerged. For instance, why was this man, a near or distant relative of the child, murdered? Who would have wanted him dead? Did the gunmen act on their own accord or were they contracted by someone else who knew the victim well? Was the child at the scene by accident or was his appearance there planned beforehand by a murder-for-hire contractor? If a responsible party could be identified, would there be grounds for a civil action in respect to any harm befalling the child? If the child suffered long-term psychological and/or traumatic brain-injury, would economic damages exist? A certain set of answers to these and other questions would suggest the merits of a civil suit in addition to criminal prosecution.

Moving forward in time, the second significant event raises additional questions in respect to the preceding episode. The paternity question and related custody battle takes us into the field of Civil Law and may bring up the possibility of determinable economic damages on numerous counts. For clarification, let us review a couple of additional facts in the case that are supportable through private and public records.

The father, descended from the elder line, and the child’s mother had been married for two decades before the birth of the boy. Such a delay in conception raised more eyebrows a half-century ago than they do today. More clandestine but discoverable evidence focuses on reports that the parents had vacationed in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during the winter preceding the birth of the boy. Hot Springs is known for the healing powers of its mineral baths. A lesser-known fact about Hot Springs is that a cottage industry for human artificial insemination and other fertility practices have flourished there since the early days of the Eugenics Movement. However, before the development of modern DNA profiling, paternity remained a matter of hearsay, speculation, and gossip—especially in extended families of second and third cousins with males of the same Y-Haplogroup subgroup.

Therefore, important questions arise: Why did such a bitter custody battle take place after the death of the child’s mother? Why was the boy not informed about his true parentage?

Why did the legal father prevail in this fight even though his resources were scant in comparison to those of his opponents? Why did an agreement that allowed him to retain custody of his son lead to a conflict arising between the elder and younger lines of this tribe (extended family)? Usually, disputes regarding financial and other types of wealth can be settled out of court, where only 5% of cases resolve after mediation or arbitration fail. Therefore, what was the deeper reason for the development of a schism that has remained for more than half a century?

Our Own Downton Abbey?
In evaluating this large multigenerational set of issues, clarity of the facts can lead us to the truth. Given this veracity, liability can be laid on the doorstep of those responsible. Given the identification of these parties, the economic damages can be determined. In this specific case, the thread that emerges seems to be a question of lineage, succession, and rightful entitlement to a cache of wealth. In closing, we suggest that DNA research may not provide all of the answers in cases such as this. However, this applied science can be used to identify the linchpin that may help us to unify the aspects of both Law and Economics in cases that parallel this one. A scientific identifier can clear away the gossip and prejudicial ideas that cloud the analysis of underlying quantitative and qualitative evidence. We hope that our inquiry into this case has provided our readership with a suitable real-life parallel with “Downton Abbey” and other fictional gems. 
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Dr. John F. Sase has taught Economics for thirty-five years and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics since the early 1990s. He earned an M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit and a Ph.D. in Economics at Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Dr. Sase can be reached at 248-569-5228 and at

Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a Supervisory Editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for over twenty years. Currently, he edits books for publication and gives seminars on writing and music. Mr. Senick can be reached at 313-342-4048 and at You can find some of his writing tips at

Julie G. Sase is a freelance copyeditor and proofreader. She earned her degree in English at Marygrove College and her graduate certificate in Parent Coaching from Seattle Pacific University. As a consultant, Ms. Sase coaches clients, writes articles for publication, and gives interviews to various media. Ms. Sase can be reached at and


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