Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Molecular eyewitness: DNA gets a human face

Carolyn Abraham:

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 portrait.

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.

"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 objective."

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.

The new technology seems to be pretty successful:

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.

New crime-fighting tool made in Sarasota

Author, technology help put face on homicide


Post a Comment

<< Home

View My Stats