Advances in DNA – A Detective’s Best Friend
Raymond “DJ Freez” Rowe got away with murder for more than two decades. As a popular fixture on the party scene in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania he was “the” man to call for music at high school dances, restaurants, clubs and weddings. He was the last person his fans would have suspected in the brutal sexual assault and murder of 25-year-old schoolteacher Christy Mirack.
But DJ Freez’s luck ran out when his curious stepsister sought out genealogy information and uploaded her DNA to start searching the family tree.
Her biological information showed similarities to DNA found at the Mirack crime scene and ultimately led cold case detectives to her brother, Raymond. Police followed the DJ to one of his gigs, collected his empty water bottle and used chewing gum and Rowe’s DNA told them they had found their killer.
Once confronted Rowe admitted that on the early morning of Dec. 21, 1992, he forced his way into Christy’s apartment, scattering the armful of Christmas presents she planned to take to school, beat her with a wooden board and raped and strangled her with her own sweater. DNA technology coupled with a publicly available genealogy service solved a crime that had shaken that Susquehanna River community for more than 26 years. Earlier this month Rowe was sentenced to life in prison with no parole.
Advances in crime fighting DNA science seem to be occurring at warp speed. So fast that some are waving red warning flags.
Soon, a police station near you could have what’s called the DNA “Magic Box” that can process a DNA sample in just 90 minutes with a specially trained member of the force at the controls. No more sending out cheek swabs, blood droplets or other crime scene evidence to a far-away specialized lab and then waiting for weeks or months for results. Law enforcement agencies from Texas to Delaware and Pennsylvania to Utah are already using these groundbreaking DNA test devices.
In late 2017, President Trump signed into law the Rapid DNA Act which, beginning this year, allows approved Magic Box operators to connect directly to the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This will revolutionize crime fighting. Not only can officers search their local and state DNA data bases for a match to newly collected evidence, they will also be able to search CODIS with its more than 13 million offender profiles submitted from all 50 states and all federal law enforcement agencies.
And the final bit of DNA news may turn out to be the most potent crime fighting tool of all, once it is fully developed. It’s called phenotyping and it’s been around since 2014. Over the years new scientific capabilities have been added to this remarkable forensic science. In short, phenotyping is a way to take certain information from a DNA sample and, literally, create the face of a suspect. I’m no scientist but as I understand it this technique zeros in on DNA data like the donor’s sex, eye color, hair color and texture, skin pigmentation, ancestry, whether the person has freckles (and how many!) and even the shape of their face. Then a forensic artist puts it all together into a composite mugshot of sorts.
It is important to note that the created face isn’t necessarily the actual suspect police are looking for – although there have been some remarkably accurate likenesses to the proven guilty party. Rather, the composite face is a prediction about the way the suspect will look, a way for detectives to eliminate those who don’t have the same DNA traits.
In other words, say phenotyping of a murderer’s DNA shows he has red hair, blue eyes, lots of freckles and a round face. Police will realize that the brunette man with the long narrow face they have in custody is not the right person. If properly used this technique could result in far fewer wrongful convictions.
There are critics of DNA science who warn about breach of privacy issues that arise when samples are taken from innocent people. In many states anyone who is arrested must automatically surrender to a DNA cheek swab. Their biological profile then goes into a data base even though it may later be determined that they had nothing to do with a crime. The concern is real and there should be a way to purge an innocent person’s DNA contribution. But, think about this, if a DNA sample sits in a data base unmatched to any crime what is the practical downside?
On balance, consider the years of anguish loved ones of murder victims like Christy Mirack suffer as they wait for a conclusion to their case. At Rowe’s sentencing this month Christy’s brother, Vince, had but one question. “Why? Why are we sitting here today?” He didn’t get an answer to “Why?” but, finally, the Mirack family got the answer to “Who.” With justice done, healing can begin.