It is now possible for police to release identikit sketches of crime suspects even in cases where no witnesses have come forward.
Forensic DNA phenotyping creates facial images of crime suspects based on DNA found at the crime scene. The science behind the technology is still evolving. DNA samples can predict a suspect’s hair and eye colour with a high degree of accuracy. Other characteristics such as skin colour, age, baldness or freckling will soon be possible, advocates say.
The New York Times has reported that last month in South Carolina, police released a sketch of a possible suspect in the case of a mother and her three year old daughter who were murdered four years ago. No one saw the crime, which was not captured by surveillance cameras. The computer-generated sketch from Parabon NanoLabs in Reston, Virginia, may be the first time the technology has been used by police.
The New York based company Identitas says on its website that phenotype software “is able to generate investigative leads more rapidly than traditional approaches, while using less DNA”. It recommends the technology be used in missing persons cases, for homeland security, in mass casualty events and for “investigative lead generation”.
But some scientists are sceptical about the capacity of DNA phenotyping to accurately predict what a person might look like. They say the link between DNA and facial features is still not well understood. Benedikt Hallgrimson from the University of Calgary who specialises in the development of faces has described the technology as “bit of science fiction at this point”.
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianopolis has received a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Justice to develop the technology.
Parabon has received grants from the US Defense Department. Information about physical traits derived from DNA is not permitted in court because the science is not sufficiently well established.
The South Carolina police say they are as yet no closer to finding their murder suspect.
Katherine Kizilos is a staff writer at Cosmos.
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