Despite a White Profile, a Black Suspect

ByABC News
May 28, 2003, 9:07 PM

May 29 -- 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.