Despite a White Profile, a Black Suspect

By<a href="">Andrew Chang</a>

May 29, 2003 -- How could the profilers have been so wrong?

On Tuesday, police arrested Derrick Todd Lee, the man they say killed at least five women in southern Louisiana, beginning in September 2001.

Lee is black, but when authorities released an FBI profile of the Baton Rouge serial killer nine months ago, they said he was probably white.

Lee is not the only serial killer whose identity has gone from white to black. The last time a serial killer gripped the nation's headlines, a similar turnabout also happened.

When the Beltway sniper killed 10 people in October 2002, he was widely described as an angry white male. Two black males were arrested in the Beltway sniper case and await trial.

With movies like Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and television crime dramas like CSI and the X-files, the public has come to expect miracles from profilers.

"There's a desire to have something magical, to have some worthy people go into a room and look at some information and come out with information like an oracle about what the person is like," said Robert McCree, a police science professor at John Jay College in New York.

The profilers who worked on the Beltway sniper case, and the Baton Rouge serial killer case are far from incompetent, crime experts say.

There are good reasons why both crimes were attributed to white men, they say — and they have to do with demographic trends, media pressures, and a misunderstanding of the work profilers do.

The Melting Pot

By most crime experts' accounts, it was a simple and often-used equation that probably led to the idea that the Baton Rouge serial killer was a white man: four out of five his victims were white.

"The way that the race is generally determined is largely dependent on the race of the victim," said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "There's a statistical tendency; it doesn't mean it's a perfect match."

Fox added that the race similarity is also significant when the crimes are committed in close physical proximity. Of the Baton Rouge serial killer's five known victims, three were strangled, one was beaten to death and one had her throat cut.

Because serial killers are cautious, aiming not to get caught so they can kill again — they tend to operate where they are most comfortable, said Pat Brown, a criminal profiler and CEO of the Sexual Homicide Exchange.

"They don't pick women according to race, they pick who's convenient," she said.

Brown said serial killers often have to loiter in an area for a long time, either hunting for victims or disposing of evidence, so they also have to be comfortable in that area.

As an example, Brown cited a case that involved an executive who had been kidnapped in a wealthy, white suburb, by an abductor who waited for him in a car at the end of his driveway. In that case, profilers correctly assumed that if the perpetrator was black, he would have garnered too much attention, she said.

But university environs are usually very mixed, and the Baton Rouge serial killer was active around the Louisiana State University campus. That might have helped keep him camouflaged, Brown said.

"It's an old myth that most serial killers are white," Brown said. As America becomes increasingly multiracial, profilers will have to start adjusting their equations, she said.

An Escape Hatch?

Such equations are especially needed, because a mistaken profile might form the basis of a defense.

"The D.A. can confront with the misidentification at the trial in a similar fashion that the killer was profiled as a white male," said Ron Carlson, a law professor at the University of Georgia.

Others said it was unlikely that such a mistake could open an escape hatch for Lee.

"They'll only throw it out if the arrest was based on the profile," said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio and a former prosecutor.

The case against Lee is not based on the profile, but DNA evidence.

Even with the DNA evidence, Carlson still saw the case as far from foolproof. "Sometimes juries do not believe that, as in the O.J. [Simpson] case," he said.

But Fox said that profiles are more often a crime-solving tool than a proof. "A profile is never used to definitively say who did it," he said. "Profiles just aren't that reliable and they never have been."

Only a Tool

"People get a sense that [profiles are] more useful than they really are," Fox said.

It's practically the nature of a profile to be wrong, he said, because they're not used for easy cases. "If it's a slam dunk and you apprehend the suspect within 12 hours, you never get a profile," said Fox.

Otherwise, Brown said, they contain vague generalizations that are true for most any serial killer — describing a "loser" between the ages of 25 and 35, who has trouble with women. "Most profiles generated are what I call a 'duh' profile," she said.

Yet, when a killer is on the loose, the public is thirsty for information, and it will seize on anything it can find. "I don't think it's possible not to publicize" said Harris, author of Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work. "[The profile] would get out there whether we held it back or not."

Brown said there are better ways to involve the public. She has been recommending more emphasis on a "bullet point chart," which describes common facts about suspected serial crimes to get potential leads.

For example, she said, police might say the crimes were all committed between certain times, or in a certain area, which might be more fruitful than putting up a hypothesized description.

"There are many errors and frustration from this sort of information [from profilers]" McCree said. The Son-of-Sam case in New York City in the 1970s practically called out for a profiler because of all the taunting notes and odd clues left by the killer, he said — but it was solved by old-fashioned police work.

The Son of Sam was caught when a witness saw that a car near one of the Son of Sam's crime scenes had a parking ticket on it. Police traced all the parking tickets in that neighborhood, ultimately finding the killer.

Similarly, Lee was linked to the Louisiana killings after an investigator probing two separate crimes had a DNA sample from him.

But most experts hesitated to say that profiling was harmful. "It has been shown to be, when it's used correctly, a useful tool," Harris said.

"What the experience in Louisiana points out is that even if you have a well-constructed profile, even if it's done right, it's only a hypothetical picture," he said.

"It does not give you the kind of certainty you need to make a full-fledged prediction."

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