Editor's note: This article was first published Nov. 29, 2018. We're bringing it back today because Jan. 6 is National Technology Day.
WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Unique technology can now take a DNA sample left at a crime scene and turn it into a composite sketch.
Law enforcement agencies say it's helped them make major breakthroughs in cases old and new. But critics claim the technology is based on thin science and could end up ensnaring innocent people.
When a crime is committed, a sketch artist can sometimes draw a suspect to life. Maybe it's their wide-set eyes. Or a nose that stands out. A unique mustache. Distinguishing features trigger memories and often create leads for police. Just ask Anne Arundel County, Maryland, police Sgt. Robert Price.
"They give us this image we can put it out and someone may say, 'Hey! That looks like my neighbor down the street,'" he said.
But what about when victims haven’t seen their attacker, can’t remember what they looked like or didn’t live to tell their story? In cases where pencil, paper and other methods fail, detectives like Price have a unique tool in the hunt to find nameless, faceless killers or rapists. They're using sketches drawn from DNA.
"Primarily now we’ve used them on the cases where we’ve had next to nothing to go on," Price explained.
The sketches Price and others are using are the result of something called phenotyping, essentially painting a picture of what people look like based on a DNA sample obtained by police. Dr. Moses Schanfield, a forensic scientist and DNA expert who teaches at George Washington University, explained the technology to Circa.
"You can do it within limits."
It's complicated, but basically Schanfield says certain genes determine how we look, so sequencing developed from DNA samples can be used to try to predict someone’s eye, hair and skin color in a sketch. Facial features and face shape are also included, but they’re much harder to forecast.
"You’re not going to get a precise answer," Schanfield said. "It’s not like a DNA profile that the likelihood of a coincidental match is 10-to-the-negative-15th. You’re going to get a generic picture."
For many law enforcement agencies, the pictures they're using come from a Virginia company called Parabon Nanolabs. Its team is creating sketches using a system called "Snapshot." A video featured on Parabon's website details the process, saying, "As the program sifts through billions of pieces of genetic information, it slowly begins to build a suspect’s appearance. We run it through the Snapshot algorithms and produce predictions about that person."
Records show that since 2011, the Department of Defense has poured more than $1 million into Parabon to develop Snapshot. Now, agencies across the country are paying as much as $4,000 for sketches the company says can generate leads and narrow suspect lists. It's widely used with police departments large and small from across the country requesting and then raving about the DNA sketches obtained for their cases.
The wide use of this technology concerns Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union who first wrote about DNA phenotype sketching back in 2016, before it really took off.
"I didn’t think it would spread that much," Stanley told Circa. "I wrote about one case in Miami. I had no idea it would spread to so many departments."
Stanley fears the sketches could detour or harm investigations, reinforce racial bias, or be used to establish probable cause against innocent people, ensnaring them in criminal investigations. And while he says he understands the desire of law enforcement and the families of victims to close cases, he says this type of sketching shouldn't be used for any serious purpose. Stanley called it science fiction.
"I think it’s pretty irresponsible to be putting out something that’s such a guess, not founded on science. It may coincidentally resemble some people and everybody’s going to start to wonder maybe they’re a rapist or a murderer," he said. "That’s just not a fair thing to do when the science here is so thin."
Circa asked Parabon about its science but the company wouldn’t do an interview, despite repeated requests. Questions have been raised by the ACLU and in published reports from scientific experts. The main question that keeps coming up is why the company's methods haven’t been published in peer-reviewed journals, something that’s fairly standard, according to Schanfield.
"If you’re doing something like new and novel science, you’re going to have to publish that and show how accurate it is," Schanfield said.
And until that happens, Schanfield says DNA sketches should be considered an approximation, in the ballpark but not exact. He called the technology an investigational tool that's not incredibly precise, saying, "Let’s say somebody submitted me. One, it doesn’t tell you I have a beard. It doesn’t tell I’m old as dirt. It doesn’t tell you that I have white hair or that I have glasses. So, you might get a picture of a, probably a younger, slimmer me, which is generic but it wouldn’t necessarily solve anything."
But Sgt. Price and other detectives who’ve used Snapshot to great success consider it if not always a case solver, at least a jump-starter. Anne Arundel County, Maryland, has successfully used Parabon sketches in at least five cases, according to Price. The list includes homicides, rapes and even the identification of remains that ultimately led to homicide charges in another jurisdiction. But sketches like this, Price says, are like any other tip. He considers them the beginning of an investigative thread, not the end.
"They never say this is your guy, this is your suspect, go lock them up."
"This is given to us as, this is what they could look like based on their research and their computer analysis of the DNA sample," Price said. "Then we have to go back and confirm all of this data. We have to put in the time and the police work to develop the suspect. It’s just used to point us in the right direction."