[Paleopsych] G&M: Controversial Genetic Technology Helps Find Suspects

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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 
genomics age.
         "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 
abusive behaviour.
         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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