[Paleopsych] G&M: Controversial Genetic Technology Helps Find Suspects
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Sun Jun 26 18:34:43 UTC 2005
Controversial Genetic Technology Helps Find Suspects
By Carolyn Abraham
The Globe and Mail
Canadian police have been quietly using a controversial new genetic
technology to reveal the racial background and physical appearance of criminals
they are hunting, according to the Florida company that sells the test.
Officials with DNAPrint Genomics, a biotech firm in Sarasota that has
offered the test since 2002, say four separate forces in Canada -- including
the RCMP -- have used the technology to narrow their search for suspects. This
spring, two Canadian investigators made the unusual move of hand-delivering a
crime-scene DNA sample to the Florida lab.
Unlike the more familiar forensic test that tries to match DNA found at
a crime scene with samples from known suspects, this test is based on a single
recovered sample and has the potential to tell police if the offender they are
looking for is white, black, Asian, native, or of mixed race. The company then
supplies photos of people with similar genetic profiles to help complete the
The company says the so-called DNAWitness test has been used in 80
criminal investigations by law-enforcement organizations worldwide, including
the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Army and Scotland Yard.
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"This could be helpful in solving crimes, more helpful than human
eyewitnesses," said Anthony Frudakis, the company's chief scientific officer.
"Our technology serves as a potential molecular eyewitness. It's
It's also advancing at a dizzying pace. This spring, the company
launched a new DNA test that can discern a person's eye colour with 92-per-cent
accuracy. Meanwhile, the prospect of learning other physical -- even
psychological -- traits could soon follow.
But while law enforcers seem to be embracing the new science, it has
received a chilly reception from others who compare the technology -- a similar
version of which has been developed in Britain -- to racial profiling in the
"You still have to make a leap that what you're getting from the DNA
correlates to visual characteristics," said Mildred Cho, associate director of
the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics in California. "Then in order to
round those people up, you have to say to the police department, or the force,
'Go find people who look like this, someone who looks black, or someone who
looks half black and half Asian.
"This technology really overstates the ability to classify people by
race and ethnicity."
For this reason, as well as the risk of tipping off criminals who could
try to alter their appearance, Dr. Frudakis said police are loath to discuss
their use of the technology -- which appears to be the case in Canada.
Officials at DNAPrint, who sign confidentiality agreements with police,
say they cannot reveal details of the Canadian cases and investigators they
contacted on behalf of The Globe and Mail have not responded to requests to
discuss the test.
But as far as the company knows (and police do not generally keep them
updated), Dr. Frudakis said, the test has contributed to six arrests
internationally. The most prominent example comes from Louisiana where
detectives used it to catch a serial killer.
Eyewitness accounts of a white man driving a white pickup truck, as
well as an FBI psychological profile, had suggested it was a Caucasian man who
was raping and killing women in the Baton Rouge area in 2002.
But crime-scene DNA the Florida company tested indicated the offender
was 85 per cent sub-Saharan African and 15 per cent Native American. In short,
the test told police they should not be looking for a white man. Two months
after the shift in focus, Baton Rouge police arrested Derek Todd Lee, a black
man now on death row for the slaying of six women.
Asked whether RCMP hunting a possible serial killer in Edmonton might
consider using the technology, spokesman Corporal Wayne Oakes would say only
that investigators on the case are "aware of this technology, but it's not one
they have had occasion to use."
Sergeant Don Kelly of the Baton Rouge police force said in an interview
that one of the detectives involved in their serial killer case has made a
presentation to police in Edmonton. But he could not say if the technology was
In some cases, the test has been helpful in identifying victims of a
Police in Southern California, for example, had been targeting Asian
gangs after discovering skeletal remains at Mammoth Lakes Park that
bone-structure experts felt belonged to an Asian woman. But the Florida test
found the woman was largely Native American, prompting park rangers to recall
that a woman who fit that description had complained about her husband's
The test, which costs $1,000 (U.S.), scans 176 particular genetic
mutations that each offer information about a person's continent of origin. The
results then break DNA inheritance down into percentages of four geographic
groups: sub-Saharan African, East Asian, European and Native American.
The company refers to the process as an estimate of "biogeographical
ancestry" and from this, investigators can indirectly infer key physical traits
-- in particular skin, eye and hair colour.
Of the 8,000 DNA samples they have tested by this method in the course
of their research and work, 95 per cent of people turn out to be of significant
mixed heritage, said Zach Gaskin, a technical co-ordinator of forensics at the
Still, Mr. Gaskin said, once a DNA sample suggests that at least 30 per
cent of a person's heritage belongs to a particular racial group, a person
starts "to exhibit features consistent with that population."
But in a paper published in American Psychologist, U.S. sociologist
Troy Duster and ethicist Pilar Ossorio caution that the test has risks: "Some
percentage of people who look white will possess genetic markers indicating
that a significant majority of their recent ancestors were African. Some
percentage of people who look black will possess genetic markers indicating the
majority of their recent ancestors were European.
"Inferring race from genetic ancestry may mislead police rather than
illuminating their search for a suspect."
For these reasons, company officials in Florida do not actually
interpret test results by trying to describe shades of skin or hair colour.
Instead, they provide photographs taken from their sample database of 2,500
people who match the genetic mix of suspects.
Stanford's Prof. Cho criticized this technique, however, arguing that
even children from the same family can look very different from one another.
Toronto police Detective David Needham of the major sex crimes unit
applauded the technology and said it is scheduled to be presented at a
conference the force is holding in October.
"If the science is reliable and it can be accepted and established in
the courts, it's going to be great," he said.
But he knows firsthand about the controversy it attracts.
A year ago, Det. Needham was hunting two men who had abducted and raped
a woman who had seen only one of her attackers. To narrow his search for
suspects, Det. Needham asked experts at Ontario's Centre for Forensic Sciences
to try to give him a sense of racial background based on semen samples.
"They said, 'We can't do that, that's racial profiling,' " Det. Needham
said. "If someone said they had seen a white man or a black man leaving the
scene of the crime, we would use that information. So what's the difference?"
Bruce O'Neill, spokesman for the Ministry of Community and Safety and
Correctional Services, which oversees the CFS, said the technology at hand has
nothing to do with racial profiling.
Tim Caulfield, director of the Health Law and Policy Institute at the
University of Alberta, noted that if the technology is indeed a sound tool for
determining a suspect's physical appearance, it could turn out to be more
reliable than eyewitness accounts.
"With a witness, there may be a whole set of social stereotypes that
come out," he said. "If this technology is providing information that is
factual, and people don't use it to make unwarranted presumptions, then it
could be worthwhile. We need to be careful about how we let politically correct
concerns colour our views."
Yet such concerns are bound to grow right along with the power of
The Florida firm, for example, is now developing 3-D technology to read
gene types to infer physical traits such as hair texture, skull shapes or the
distance between the eyes. Dr. Frudakis predicted that such technology might
allow them within the decade to generate a crude sketch of a suspect from a DNA
If all this sounds more like an episode of CSI: Crime Scene
Investigation, the popular television program that plays up the power of
forensics, it is just a brief trailer for the plot lines to come.
Profs. Duster and Ossorio note police will eventually be able to
discern psychological characteristics from DNA samples and generate behavioural
profiles of subjects.
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