Scientific Racial Profiling

By Melba Newsome Email

On July 16, 2002, a survey crew from the Department of Transportation found Pam Kinamore’s nude, decomposing body in the area along the banks of the Mississippi known as Whiskey Bay, just west of Baton Rouge. The police tested the DNA and quickly realized that they were dealing with a serial killer: the same man who had killed two other white, middle-class women in the area.

The FBI, Louisiana State Police, Baton Rouge Police Department and sheriff’s departments soon began a massive search. Based on an FBI profile and a confident eyewitness, the Multi-Agency Homicide Task Force futilely upended South Louisiana in search of a young white man who drove a white pick-up truck. They interrogated possible suspects, knocked on hundreds of doors, held frequent press conferences and sorted through thousands of tips.

In late December, after a fourth murder, police set up a dragnet to obtain DNA from some 1200 white men. Authorities spent months and more than a million dollars running those samples against the killer’s. Still nothing.

In early March, 2003, investigators turned to Tony Frudakis, a molecular biologist who said he could determine the killer’s race by analyzing his DNA. They were unsure about the science, so, before giving him the go-ahead, the task force sent Frudakis DNA swabs taken from 20 people whose race they knew and asked him to determine their races through blind testing. He nailed every single one.

Still, when they gathered in the Baton Rouge police department for a conference call with Frudakis in mid-March, they were not prepared to hear or accept his conclusions about the killer.

“Your guy has substantial African ancestry,” said Frudakis. “He could be Afro-Caribbean or African American but there is no chance that this is a Caucasian. No chance at all.”

There was a prolonged, stunned silence, followed by a flurry of questions looking for doubt but Frudakis had none. Would he bet his life on this, they wanted to know? Absolutely. In fact, he was certain that the Baton Rouge serial killer was 85 percent Sub-Saharan African and 15 percent native American.

“This means we’re going to turn our investigation in an entirely different direction,” Frudakis recalls someone saying. “Are you comfortable with that?”

“Yes. I recommend you do that,” he said. And now, rather than later since, in the time it took Frudakis to analyze the sample, the killer had claimed his fifth victim. The task force followed Frudakis’ advice and, two months later, the killer was in custody.

Colorblind CODIS, Genetic Drift

Tony Frudakis first heard about the Baton Rouge serial killer just like everyone else outside of Louisiana — on cable news. As months went by, the body count climbed, Frudakis followed the case, thinking “why on earth can’t they catch this guy?”

Several years earlier, Frudakis‘ father was shot when he confronted a would-be car thief in the driveway of his Long Beach, California, home. The thief escaped but dropped his driver’s license at the scene and was apprehended quickly. The serial killer had also left behind his identification in his DNA but, unlike a driver’s license, his genetic ID revealed nothing about his physical characteristics — or at least it revealed nothing the police could use.

The DNA forensic products available at the time could only be used to match DNA specimens in the CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, database which contains about 5 million DNA profiles. If investigators have a crime scene sample but no suspect, they run it against those in the database to see if it matches a sample already on file.

But while CODIS is good at linking the criminals who are already catalogued from other crimes, the system is useless in identifying physical characteristics. It says nothing about race. It has been specifically set up to reveal no racial information whatsoever, in part so that the test would be consistently accurate irrespective of race.

But non-scientific considerations also factored into how the system was established. When the national DNA Advisory Board selected the gene markers, or DNA sequences which have a known location on a chromosome, for CODIS, they deliberately chose not to include markers associated with ancestral geographic origins to avoid any political maelstrom.

DNAWitness, the test Frudakis applied in the Baton Rouge case, uses a set of 176 genetic markers selected precisely because they disclose the most information about physical characteristics. Some are found primarily in people of African heritage, while others are found mainly in people of Indo-European, Native American or South Asian heritage.

No one sequence alone can predict ancestral origin. However, by looking collectively at hundreds and analyzing the frequency of the various markers, Frudakis says he could predict genetic ancestry with 99 percent accuracy. >>MORE

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