Wednesday, January 2, 2008

DNA Test Can ID a Suspect's Race, Police scared to use it.

Crime: Anything that can be used in a useful manner in solving crimes shouldn't be dismissed as much as this test.

In March 2003, investigators turned to Tony Frudakis, a molecular biologist who said he could determine the suspect's race by analyzing his DNA. Uncertain about the science, the police asked Frudakis to take a blind test: They sent him DNA swabs from 20 people to see if he could identify their races. He nailed every one.

On a conference call a few weeks later, Frudakis reported his results on their killer. "Your guy could be African-American or Afro-Caribbean, but there is no chance that this is a Caucasian." There was a prolonged silence, followed by a flurry of questions. They all came down to this: Would Frudakis bet his life on his results? Absolutely.

Quickly changing course, the authorities soon turned up the file of Derrick Todd Lee, a 34-year-old black man with an extensive rap sheet for domestic violence, assault, stalking, and peeping. The police got a subpoena, took a cheek swab, and a few days later had an answer: Lee's sample matched DNA collected at the crime scenes.

Frudakis' test is called DNAWitness. It examines DNA from 176 locations along the genome. Particular sequences at these points are found primarily in people of African heritage, others mainly in people of Indo-European, Native American, or South Asian descent. No one sequence can perfectly identify a person's origin. But by looking at scores of markers, Frudakis says he can predict ancestry with a tiny margin of error.

Since the Baton Rouge case, DNAWitness has been used nationally in nearly 200 criminal investigations. In several, the science played a crucial role in narrowing the suspect field, ultimately leading to an arrest. But its success hasn't made the technology popular with law enforcement. Frudakis' company, DNAPrint, has yet to turn a profit and may not survive much longer.

Part of the problem is cost — basic tests run more than $1,000. But the real issue? DNAWitness touches on race and racial profiling — a subject with such a tortured history that people can't countenance the existence of the technology, even if they don't understand how it works.

....Tony Clayton, a black man and a prosecutor who tried one of the Baton Rouge murder cases, concedes the benefits of the test: "Had it not been for Frudakis, we would still be looking for the white guy in the white pickup." Nevertheless, Clayton says he dislikes anything that implies we don't all "bleed the same blood." He adds, "If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would."

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