Thanks to recent advances in DNA technology, there are more routes than ever to catching a violent criminal. In 2020, the FBI released results of a study that showed the M-Vac, a wet vacuum machine, was more effective than standard swabs at collecting DNA from surfaces like wood or the lining of a car’s trunk. A method called next-generation sequencing, which can glean a broader range of information from a lower quality or smaller sample of DNA than traditional testing, led to the conviction of a criminal for the first time in 2019 in the Netherlands. Law enforcement agencies are applying even traditional DNA testing in outside-the-box ways, with agencies across the U.S. using genetic genealogy to identify dozens of suspects since the famous 2018 arrest of Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo more than 30 years after his deadly crime spree.
Despite the availability of new approaches, budget remains a barrier to many police departments and their cold case units taking advantage of the technology. That’s the problem Ashley Flowers, founder of podcasting company Audiochuck, is aiming to solve with the launch of the nonprofit Season of Justice, which funds advanced DNA testing for law enforcement agencies, among other services.
“What I was seeing over and over is, ‘We’ve got these amazing new ways of bringing resolution to cold cases,’ but the funds weren’t there to do it,” Flowers says. “It was just this gap that [made me think], we can come up with the funding, but we need a way to get it to them, through the proper channels.”
Flowers has a background interacting with law enforcement, first as a volunteer and then as a board member of Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana. “I always wanted to be a cold case detective, but I would make a terrible police officer and it just wasn’t going to happen for me,” she says. In 2016, During her time there, she originated a version of her now famous podcast Crime Junkie as a way to draw attention to unsolved cases. Her interest in true crime stems from the same desire to find answers for victims’ families, she explains, something she believes Season of Justice will contribute to. “I think there is a responsible way to engage with these stories,” she says. “That’s what we set out to do when I started Audiochuck — if we’re going to be talking about the worst times in families’ lives every single week, what can we do to be responsible with that? How can we… use our voice for education, for advocacy, use the money that we’re bringing in to actually fund non-profits, and make real change in true crime?”
Flowers quietly founded Season of Justice in June of 2020 with funds from Audiochuck, including from podcast fans who have donated through Patreon or bought merchandise. “We put on our website ‘A portion of your money is going to go to a nonprofit;’ they just didn’t know which one yet because we hadn’t announced,” Flowers says. Since then private donors have begun contributing, too. After delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the organization got its tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status in early 2021, and today Flowers is announcing the launch.
Law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., or Australia can apply for a grant from Season of Justice by filling out an application on their website indicating what type of testing they want to do and which lab they’d like to use. The lab then bills Season of Justice directly for the testing.
Flowers recruited Steve DuBois, a retired 30-year law-enforcement veteran and former director of Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana, to executive direct the nonprofit. He’s been reaching out to law enforcement agencies to tell them about the organization. Even with DuBois’ background, it’s taken a little while to gain their trust. “I literally started getting on the Internet and tracking down cold case squads and just cold-calling them or sending them emails,” he says. “I know a few of them probably called my old department just to make sure I was a real person.” The organization is catching on, however, with more than $225,000 already paid out to work on 31 different cases.
DuBois thinks grants from the organization could help over-worked police departments reinvigorate cases that have languished. “They have to deal with incoming homicides, and then they have cold cases and usually the ones that are in the door right then are getting the money and the cold cases sometimes get put on a shelf,” he says. “And that’s what Ashley really wanted to do, was help kind of bring them back up to the level of an active homicide.”
The vast majority of the grants they’ve paid so far have gone to labs at the request of law enforcement agencies, but Flowers wants to encourage more applications from family members or victims of crimes, as well. The organization will pay for billboards, commercials, and other awareness campaigns for people who want to renew public interest in a case. Flowers believes approaches like this can be just as effective as advanced lab testing in getting a break in a case. “There are still people out there who have information [about a case] who, as time goes on and allegiances change, might be willing to come forward,” she says. “So while DNA is amazing and I think it is hugely important and will solve a lot of cases, I still think there are other investigative avenues and tools that we can also help support.”