The Future of Forensic Identification?

An information artist uses DNA analysis to create a 3-D portrait of what an individual looks like.

by / September 27, 2013

On Thanksgiving morning in 1993, a group of hunters strode through tall trees and dense undergrowth near Odessa, Del. In a clearing, just 150 feet off Route 9, they stumbled upon a small human skeleton with grass growing through it.

Twenty years later, the skeleton remains a mystery. She was female, just a hair above five feet tall, white, between 20 and 45 years old, and apparently without anyone looking for her. Police surmised that the woman had been killed, stripped and dumped in that field some three months prior. With no clothing, jewelry or obvious report of a missing person to go by, who she was or where she came from were beyond simple reckoning.

That was the end of a woman’s story and the beginning of the story of Unidentified Person (UP) #2212 of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. She is among 40,000 others whose identity is unknown.

Now, an innovative marriage of art and technology offers new hope for giving names back to these individuals — but it also raises important questions around science versus interpretation.  

An information artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has in her lab a DNA sample of UP #2212. She’s going to use it to make a bust of what the deceased woman may have looked like. There are already sketches and clay models of UP #2212 that were rendered by artists and anthropologists who made scientific guesses based on the victim’s bones. But a 3-D model informed by genetic traits could be the extra piece of data that finally reveals the woman’s identity.

Dewey-Hagborg doesn’t usually work with the Delaware Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, but Deputy Director Hal Brown saw her art and asked her to apply it to his field as an experiment. Brown had read about a project called Stranger Visions, in which Dewey-Hagborg explored the concept of how much information could be obtained from a single strand of hair or other objects, such as a piece of discarded chewing gum or a cigarette butt, that contain DNA. Dewey-Hagborg collected these samples — or as some would call them “forensic evidence” — from around New York City, used DNA analysis to identify the physical traits of each person to whom the objects belonged, and used 3-D modeling software to create her vision of what those people may have looked like. Finally, she used a 3-D printer to create physical models of the heads she had created to go alongside the evidence.

Photo: Information artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg uses DNA analysis to identify physical traits. Photo by Matt Greenslade Photography.

“It’s similar to me being a sketch artist except instead of being a sketch artist, I work with code and create models and physical models,” Dewey-Hagborg said.

With unlimited funding, Dewey-Hagborg said she would have access to about 50 identifying traits taken from DNA analysis, which could lead to a fairly distinct portrait. As it is, she has access to eye color, gender, size of the nose, tendency toward obesity, ethnicity and maternal ancestry. When combined, these traits give her the ability to create a face that bears a “family resemblance” to the real individual. The final detail: She paints the eyes by hand.

Exactly what this technology means and where it’s headed are questions Dewey-Hagborg has put much thought into but hasn’t yet reached any definite conclusions about. “I’m mainly just hoping to point to that and start a conversation about it. There is no regulation about the use of this technology in law enforcement, and there is a whole slew of potential problems with it.”

The portraits she creates are artistic interpretations based on data that was found scientifically, but often, she said, people hear “DNA” and assume that what they’re looking at is the end-all, be-all. “It has this added aura of objectivity because it comes from science,” she said. And that could be abused.

Misconceptions about science and mathematical probability, along with public belief in the infallible integrity of DNA evidence has led to the conviction of innocent people. The FBI announced in July that it will review more than 2,000 cases in which DNA testing of hair samples led to convictions, on death row and elsewhere. The FBI didn’t report that any scientist had used flawed techniques, but rather the bureau will examine whether the reports and testimony connected to DNA testing accurately reflected the science.

Image: Artists Heather Dewey-Haggorg's "Stranger Vision" project began as an attempt to see how much she could learn about  a person from a single strand of hair.

With direct-to-consumer genetic testing becoming available for relatively low prices through companies like 23andMe, there is a trend toward genetic information becoming more accessible. What was just decades ago a relative mystery is now becoming a matter of public record. It’s possible that within 100 years, DNA scanners will be just another smartphone feature.

As the Human Genome Project proceeds and advances are made in forensic DNA technology, more information can be obtained from smaller samples and the scientific community’s general understanding of DNA is improving, said John Butler, a fellow with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. However, some areas of knowledge are growing faster than others.

“The weak link right now is the genetic-to-phenotype information,” Butler said. “You can get the DNA from the sample, but interpreting that data and making sense of that data is something that’s very much in the infancy of the abilities of what we can do right now.”

Butler agreed with Dewey-Hagborg’s assessment that DNA technology isn’t the 100 percent accurate science that it’s often portrayed as in TV shows and movies. “There’s a test called ‘iris flex’ right now that will do six different points in the genome, and it can tell you brown eyes versus blue eyes accurately about 90 percent of the time,” he said. “Still, that’s not even close to what you would want to do if you’re going to spend all this time making a 3-D model of somebody.”

A company called DNAPrint Genomics, which went out of business in 2009, offered a service for law enforcement called DNAWitness. The company used DNA ancestry markers to inform customers of a suspect’s skin color, based on the sample it received.

Famously, Louisiana law enforcement used the service while searching for the person who murdered Pamela Kinamore in 2002, along with a string of other victims. Initially police believed the serial killer was white, based on eyewitness accounts and the tendency of serial killers to kill within their own ethnic groups (Kinamore was white). But DNAPrint Genomics revealed that the person police were looking for was black, and that information eventually tied the murder of Kinamore to Derrick Todd Lee, who is now known as the Baton Rouge Serial Killer.

Although the limited information offered by DNAPrint Genomics was useful in this case, Butler said the technology didn’t have enough specificity to warrant widespread use in law enforcement. A suspect’s skin color is often already known anyway, and even if it’s not, many areas are too racially diverse for information about skin color to be very useful, he said. For phenotyping, or using DNA analysis to determine someone’s physical traits, to be useful, the profile provided by DNA analysis needs to be more comprehensive, specific and accurate than what science has access to today.

If a law enforcement agency uses DNA technology today, it’s almost always for matching samples against known DNA or fingerprints in a national database, not phenotyping, Butler said. “Right now, there’s not a single police lab in the United States, to my knowledge, that’s doing anything with this type of technology,” he said. But if what Dewey-Hagborg is doing were to be developed further and a close-to-real portrait of someone could be made from DNA alone, he said there isn’t a law enforcement agency in the country that wouldn’t want to use it.

Photo: 3-D models have a "family resemblance" to the real individual. Photo by Matt Greenslade Photography.

Forensic artists at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) use their own techniques to chip away at today’s 40,000 missing and unidentified people. Using software developed by SensAble Technologies, called FreeForm, forensic artists and anthropologists try to re-create the faces of the deceased by taking cues from the CT scans of skeletal remains.

Joe Mullins, a forensic artist with NCMEC, along with anthropologist David Hunt, used the software to generate faces for two 2,000-year-old mummies: an 8-year-old boy and a 3-year-old boy. 3-D busts of the faces were displayed as part of the External Life in Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The facial models taught historians that the mummies were of West Asian or Middle Eastern origin, and that the mummified children’s facial features were more refined than they originally thought, a historical breakthrough.

Computer modeling uses many of the same techniques as clay modeling, Mullins said. Artists place tissue depth markers and layers of muscle and skin to build a likeness, but using computers eliminates the need to put a fragile old skull in the mail or risk breaking a skull while molding clay on top of it.

But unlike Dewey-Hagborg’s work, Mullins said forensic portraits should leave no room for artistic interpretation — that’s why their models are in black and white. “If you see a facial reconstruction from skeletal remains and it is in bright vivid color with blue eyes, olive skin and beautiful blond hair, that person is psychic or has some fancy DNA testing that nobody else has,” Mullins said, adding that as an artist himself, he finds it a constant struggle to not take artistic license while creating a model and reminds his students to not fall into that trap.

Photo: Dewey-Hagborg describes herself as a high-tech sketch artist. Photo by Matt Greenslade Photography.

The work of Mullins and NCMEC has led to the identification of children and adults, including one victim of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, who is estimated to have killed more than 90 people. NCMEC used clay models until about 2007, but now uses digital modeling exclusively.

Mullins and his team of forensic anthropologists can get a lot of information just by looking at a skull. They can discern what the person’s smile may have looked like by looking at the teeth, identify whether the victim’s ear lobes were attached or hanging, and identify facial characteristics such as nose width, lip thickness and eye shape. Mullins would be grateful if DNA forensics could add enough information to identify all the skulls and put him out of a job.

“That would be awesome,” he said. “Having that extra information for us takes the ambiguity out of the equation. That narrows the field of when we’re putting a face together and it’s going to be more accurate. That would be an incredible resource for us to use.”

NCMEC publishes images of the facial models, hoping they will spur recognition with the public. If someone comes forward with a lead, NCMEC can use DNA matching to see if the lead is correct, but beyond that, DNA isn’t used in its modeling process, Mullins said.

“With the facial reconstructions, it’s already a horrible, tragic story by the time it gets here because you open up a box and it’s an 11-year-old little girl, or what’s left of her,” Mullins said. They don’t call it “closure,” he said — being able to finally solve a case just gives them the opportunity to provide a family with answers. “We have these coined expressions that we say during media interviews,” Mullins said, “but there are no words to explain how rewarding it is.”


Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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