DNA May Change Killer Profile

ByABC News via via logo

June 13, 2003 -- A brand-new forensics tool that helped identify the race of the suspect in the Baton Rouge, La., serial killings could forever change how investigators break big cases.

Tony Frudakis, head of a forensics laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., claims to have perfected a new DNA technology — called SNIPS, or single nucleotide polymorphism — that breaks the ethnicity of a murder suspect down by percentage. In more than 3,000 blind tests of the SNIPS technology, Frudakis' lab has not yet confirmed a single error, he says.

Frudakis offered the technology to authorities in Louisiana looking for the Baton Rouge serial killer. And the new DNA test led to a break in the case.

As far back as September 2002, a police profile suggested the suspect was likely a white man aged 25 to 35. Even just before the arrest of suspect Derrick Todd Lee, a black man, authorities were following an FBI profile that pegged the killer as most likely white.

After studying DNA found at one of the crime scenes, Frudakis concluded that the Baton Rouge serial killer had about 80 percent African affiliation and 15 percent Native American affiliation. In other words, the killer was not white after all.

Investigators shifted their focus and eventually arrested Lee, 34, in May in connection with the slayings of at least five women in southern Louisiana beginning September 2001.

In an exclusive Primetime interview, Frudakis gave ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer and famed crime writer and ABCNEWS consultant Patricia Cornwell a tour of his lab.

"I think [SNIPS is] so revolutionary that I'm still reeling from it a little bit, because I keep up with all of this and I didn't know they were doing this," Cornwell said.

Looking Beyond Traditional Profiles

The break in the Baton Rouge case came after months of frustration, largely stemming from criminal profiles that pegged the killer as a white man.

The contrary clues were there. Just after the slaying of Charlotte Murray Pace in June 2002, for instance, two witnesses said they told authorities they saw a black man watching the victim's house on the day of the killing.

One witness and her neighbors even made a composite sketch of their own — which bore some resemblance to Lee — and circulated it on their own while police pursued potential white male suspects.

But police maintained the slayings were not the work of an African-American man, witness Karen Savoie said. "They felt this would not be a black person because it was a very messy crime and that blacks don't have a tendency to commit that violent or messy of a crime," she recalled.

Cornwell believes authorities were victims of an outdated assumption that serial killers are generally white male loners.

"We've got to get away from this whole law enforcement profiling," Cornwell said. "If you're working on laboratory rats or robots, it might work. But the fact of the matter is these killers, their patterns, are just as varied as yours and mine might be."

At First, All-White DNA Samples

Investigators had taken DNA samples from more than 1,000 white suspects in hopes of clues in the search for the killer. In fact, before his arrest, Lee was forced to submit a sample for DNA testing in a case not linked to the serial slayings.

Then, on May 23, after months of telling the public to be on the lookout for a white man, authorities announced they were searching for a light-skinned black man in his late 20s or early 30s, but also left open the possibility that he could be of multi-ethnic or Asian descent. Four days later, after a massive manhunt and a series of tips, police found and arrested Lee in Atlanta.

Lee — who has a criminal history including arrests for stalking, peeping into homes, burglary and attempted murder — faces charges of murder and rape in the deaths of five women in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, the attempted murder and attempted rape of a sixth woman in St. Martin Parish, and kidnapping and burglary.

If convicted, Lee could face the death penalty.

Authorities also suspect he may have been involved in the 1992 homicide of Connie Warner of Zachary, La., and the 1998 abduction of her neighbor Randi Mebruer. Mebruer's body has never been found.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events