Case Study: DNA Dragnet

By Guest Columnist Nov 13, 2008

By Truc Nguyen In March 2003 in Charlottesville, VA, police were searching for potential suspects in a series of rapes that had occurred in the area since 1997. Based on a number of leads, the police believed the rapist to be African American, young, single and possibly a college student. A month later, Police Chief Longo said that 400 of 690 possible suspects were quickly eliminated because their DNA samples were already in the state database and there was no match of their DNA to that from the crime scene, or because they had been incarcerated when the rapes occurred. Police initiated the collection of saliva samples from the 197 remaining suspects, and got 187 of them to agree to a “swab-on-the-street” operation. 185 of these suspects were black and 2 were Latino. One of those who refused was University of Virginia graduate student Steven Turner, who twice refused to be tested. He stated, “Because the suspect is Black, every Black man is a suspect. The more indiscriminate the search, the closer it is to discrimination. What are we going to do about this as a community?” In the end the perpetrator was caught. He was African American, yet he was neither in the criminal database nor in the group chosen for DNA swabbing. Discussion questions: 1.tWhat was the role of DNA Forensics? How was DNA database being used? 2.tWhat limitations and ethical questions does this case raise? 3.tWhat are the Racial Justice implications for the use of this technology?