An AncestryDNA kit, the Golden State Killer, and a background in genealogy inspired Bachelor of Laws (LLB) student Callum Vittali-Smith’s Honours research topic, “To catch a killer cousin: Investigative genetic genealogy as a critical extension of familial searching in serious crime convictions in Australia”.
Callum was accepted into the Honours Research Program (Honours Program), offered to motivated LLB students with outstanding academic ability.
We spoke to Callum about his pathway into the Honours Program, how he chose his research topic, and his overall experience.
If you ever get the chance to do Honours at Sydney Law School, go for it. It will likely be the best academic decision you have made.
It was an incredibly positive experience and one which I would highly recommend to anyone who comes across the opportunity to do so. I had never considered doing Honours until late in fourth year when I received an email inviting me to a workshop.
As soon as I had committed to undertaking Honours, I knew what my research topic would be. I approached Dr Carolyn McKay and she agreed to supervise me.
I received an AncestryDNA test kit and being a fairly experienced genealogist, I got to work to identify how the matches were connected. In doing so, I soon uncovered huge scandals. When you realise this simple test can reveal who your great-grandfather was philandering with, you soon wonder what else lies in its enormous power.
Around the same time, news was breaking of the Golden State Killer being identified after decades of no leads. What got me was that the suspect, a retired police officer, was arrested while preparing a roast dinner for his family - such a mundane daily task which shows the entirely ordinary life this rapist, torturer and murderer was living, confident that he had got away entirely.
I knew then that this was powerful stuff and needed to be looked into with a balanced degree of caution and expediency.
The first hurdle was completing the formal application, as a clear direction had to be demonstrated even at that early stage. However, there was always the understanding that direction (of research, methodology, structure, and writing) was subject to change throughout the project. This dynamism is incredibly refreshing when one is used to brief, short turnaround university assignments.
My supervisor, Dr McKay, was a tremendous support and gave a great deal of feedback for me as I was editing and perfecting my draft.
There’s a lot of self-direction in terms of setting deadlines and sticking to them. I don’t think I’d ever studied in the university library before, but I did spend many hours there, with my Gorgon City DJ set on repeat and between forty and fifty tabs open at any given time.
I compare my research project to being a tugboat captain on stormy seas. While you are at the helm, you are being pushed in many directions. Sometimes you steer yourself back, but other times you ride the wave and be led somewhere unexpected. Either way, you reach your destination in the end.
I have finished College of Law and should be admitted this winter. So far, I am enjoying working full time, having spent the last few years balancing work at the law firm with university. Practicing law has always been my intention and objective, whilst I sort of fell into research during university.
I think a well-rounded legal career should ideally include both practice and research. Paul Byrne SC for example, found time in between practice to publish articles in publications such as the Criminal Law Journal.
I have so many ideas and areas I would love to research. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to do so once I have more experience and self-sufficiency in my career.
Right now, with Dr McKay and Dr Jason Chin’s support, I am working to edit my thesis for publication this year.
Callum’s research reveals that investigative genetic genealogy is gaining prominence around the world when solving serious crimes, however it has yet to be embraced in Australia. Through his research, Callum explores this exciting new technology, and examines the many criminal and social justice issues it raises including privacy, bias, and consent.
Callum was awarded the Paul Byrne SC Memorial Prize for Advanced Criminal Law for his research project, supervised by Sydney Institute of Criminology Co-Director, Dr Carolyn McKay.