Scientists Use Virus to Trace Assault Suspect

Janice Trahan was lying in bed alongside her young son when her ex-lover, a Louisiana physician, jammed a needle in her arm. Dr. Richard J. Schmidt had told Trahan he was giving her an injection of vitamin B-12, but she later told friends she sensed immediately that something was wrong.

Seconds after giving the injection, Schmidt fled the room.

Over the decade that she had been having the extramarital affair with Schmidt, the doctor had given her three abortions and she had a son with him. He had repeatedly threatened to harm Trahan, who worked as his nurse, if she left him for another man.

But she ended the 10 year relationship when he told her he would not leave his wife, despite the fact that she had divorced her husband. So on Aug. 4, 1994, Schmidt carried out his threat. The injection contained HIV, which causes AIDS.

In February 1999, Schmidt was convicted by a Louisiana court of attempting to murder Trahan, who is now HIV-positive, and the doctor was sentenced to 50 years of hard labor. The next year the state Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal.

Tracking a Changed Virus

And there it might have ended, except the real legacy of this tawdry affair goes far beyond a single trial. Scientific evidence that helped put Schmidt behind bars could have many other applications, including tracing pathogens released during biological warfare back to their source, or finding the source of a new virus, or even tracing food contamination back to a specific processing plant.

But perhaps the most astonishing thing of all is the fact that the evidence was even admitted into court. You see, it's based on evolution.

"Evolution biology has come full circle from being sort of suppressed by the courts, with the Scopes trial in 1925, to being sought out and used in court to try and figure out what actually happened," says David Mindell, associate professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, a key player in the Schmidt case. Mindell is coauthor of a report in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that explains how the Schmidt evidence was developed.

It would have been easier if the HIV found in Trahan's blood could have been found to be exactly the same as the virus found in a vial of blood in the refrigerator in Schmidt's office, which was believed to be the source. That isn't possible with HIV because the virus mutates immediately upon being transmitted to another host, and it continues mutating at a very rapid rate.

So the virus found in Trahan would naturally be different from the virus in the blood in Schmidt's office because it had continued to evolve over the months, and years, between the attempted murder and the trial.

Determining if the vial of blood could indeed have been the source of the virus was not as simple as DNA testing like that used in the O. J. Simpson trial, or fingerprinting, both of which are based on finding similar patterns. To prove it, researchers had to show that the two viruses were so closely related that they came from the same family tree and shared a common ancestor.

Seeking Blood Brothers

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