DALLAS (AP) — After her oldest daughter was killed in May 2016, Michelle McDaniel and the rest of her family isolated themselves in their small Texas town out of fear that the unknown killer could be standing in line with them at the grocery store or passing them on the street.
Then early last month, Brown County sheriff’s investigators sent McDaniel a sketch of the man they suspected in her daughter’s death, despite having no witnesses. The sketch was created using DNA found at the crime scene; a private lab used the sample to predict the shape of the killer’s face, his skin tone, eye color and hair color.
Within a week, the sheriff’s office had a suspect in custody.
For McDaniel, the DNA sketch technology known as phenotyping was an answered prayer. For law enforcement officers, it’s a relatively new tool that can generate leads in cold cases or narrow a suspect pool. But for some ethicists and lawyers, it’s an untested advancement that if used incorrectly could lead to racial profiling or ensnaring innocent people as suspects.
At a news conference a week after the sketch was released, Brown County Sheriff Vance Hill announced that 21-year-old Ryan Riggs had confessed to the beating death of 25-year-old Chantay Blankinship. Authorities have said they believe the killing was premeditated but have not released a motive. Riggs is being held without bond on a capital murder charge in the Brown County Jail about 170 miles (275 kilometers) southwest of Dallas.
“My son called me after seeing the sketch and said, ‘Mom, I think I know this kid. He used to bully me in school.’ He sat behind her in church. His mom picked her up every week and took her to church. … He was best friends with my niece and her friends. And we wouldn’t have known,” McDaniel said.
Several private companies offer phenotyping services to law enforcement to create sketches of suspects or victims when decomposed remains are found. The process looks for markers inside of a DNA sample known to be linked to certain traits. Police in at least 22 states have released suspect sketches generated through phenotyping.
It works like this: Companies have created a predictive formula using the DNA of volunteers who also took a physical traits survey or had their face scanned by recognition software. That predictive model is used to search the DNA samples for specific markers and rate the likelihood that certain characteristics exist.
For some ethicists and lawyers, however, releasing a sketch of a suspect…