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DNA Sketches Answer Prayers, Raise Concerns

by Dale Chappell

When Chantay Blankinship was killed in May 2016 in Brown County, Texas, the police had no leads other than DNA found at the crime scene. Her family isolated themselves out of fear the killer could be right next to them. Then they got a break in the case.

Brown County sheriff’s investigators gave Michelle McDaniel, Blankinship’s mother, a sketch of a man they thought might have been the killer. Within a week, the police had a suspect in custody, who then confessed to murdering Blankinship. But investigators had no witnesses. How did they do it?

DNA sketch technology, known as phenotyping, uses DNA collected from a crime scene to create physical traits of what the person might like, based on certain markers in the DNA. Companies have created a predictive formula for characteristics that match what face-scanning software says those characteristics should be, including the shape of the suspect’s face, skin tone, eye color, and hair color. It is billed as being capable of accurately predicting the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown suspect.

“My son called me after seeing the sketch and said, ‘Mom, I think I know this kid,’” McDaniel said. The suspected killer turned out to be 21-year-old Ryan Riggs, someone the family knew. “He was best friends with my niece and her friends. And we wouldn’t have known,” McDaniel said.

Police in at least 22 states have used DNA phenotyping to create sketches of suspects. Steve Armentrout, the CEO of Parabon Nanolabs, which created the sketch of Riggs, said phenotyping is another type of investigative tool, but it is not meant to replace court-tested methods for identifying suspects. “This isn’t meant to provide positive identification,” he cautioned. “The greatest value of the tool from an investigative prospective is efficiency, the ability to exclude portions of the suspect pool.”

DNA phenotyping has also raised some concerns. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that not enough is known about the link between genes and facial features to rely on the technology to produce a suspect. “You can lose weight, gain weight, change gender, grow a beard, have plastic surgery,” he said. “It risks ensnaring innocent people in webs of suspicious investigations.” He pointed out that “if this technology were used to set up dragnets to say bring in every albino person in an area as a suspect because the DNA seemed to show someone had that trait, that’s when we would object.”

Sheriff Chris Kirk, of Brazos County, Texas, said skepticism about the new technology is similar to when officers questioned digital cameras used in court because the images could be manipulated. “Now every department in every state uses them,” he said.

National Geographic has teamed with Kirk’s department recently and paid the $3,600 to submit a suspect’s DNA from the 1981 killing of Virginia Freeman and to be allowed to film the process for a documentary. The results helped the department release a sketch of what the killer might have looked like at the time of the crime, and how the suspect might have aged over the years. “It definitely renewed the interest of the public in the case,” Kirk said. “We’ve gotten a number of tips and phone calls.” 


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