When, and Why, are Forensic Tools Culturally Biased?

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According to various measures, including FBI statistics, Black men are the most likely to be homicide victims in the United States. That includes unsolved cases, for which new genetic technology such as genealogy databases are increasingly playing a role.

You’ve probably heard of some recent high profile breakthroughs using this genetic genealogy to solve the coldest of cases, including the Golden State Killer, who was sentenced in 2020 for several homicides committed decades ago.

But there’s a funny thing that both criminologists and journalists at The Atlantic, for example, have noticed: the vast majority of cases associated with the new genetic genealogy technique involve white victims, and white suspects.

So what’s going on here? Why would there be a difference between the types of crimes we pay attention to, and the types of crimes dominating cold case files? Why would a tool like genealogy genetics be socially skewed away from the reality of criminal statistics?

According to new reporting from The Atlantic, there are many reasons for this odd discrepancy between the reality of crime statistics in the U.S. and the outcomes of genealogy database forensics, including biased media attention, disproportionate resources that reflect racialized economic disparities, and buy-in from communities that recreate the vastly different relationships between policing and specific communities in the country.

The interesting thing here is the reminder that even the tools used to solve cases are subject to cultural factors.

You should read the recent article in The Atlantic, part of their new “The Presence of Justice” series. But here are some highlights:

  • “Our analysis found 104 murder victims whose alleged killers had been identified through genetic genealogy. Of the 89 murder victims whose race investigators shared with us, only four were Black. Seventy-nine were white. For context, more than half of murder victims in the U.S. were Black in 2019, the most recent year for which FBI statistics are available.”

 

  • “On another count, too, the murder victims in our analysis differed from the national trend. In 2019, more than three-quarters of victims were male. In our analysis, the opposite was true: 87 of the 104 murder victims were identified as female. Here, there is likely a simple explanation. […] In our analysis, 64 of the victims were also sexually assaulted when they were murdered; because sexual assaults often produce DNA evidence, they make strong genetic-genealogy cases. The majority of sexual-assault victims are women, so the majority of genetic-genealogy victims are, too.”

 

  • “National statistics on the victims of unsolved homicides are hard to come by, but a Washington Post investigation of unsolved homicides in 52 cities across the country over the past decade arrived at a similar conclusion: Almost three-quarters of the cases the investigation documented had Black victims.”

 

  • “Right now, there are no uniform standards for deciding when to use genetic genealogy. “I’d love to say that it’s a science and that there’s a very rigorous and rigid process, but my impression, frankly, is that it’s much more random than that,” says Daniel Medwed, a criminal-law professor at Northeastern University. “My hunch is that it’s up to the individual detectives’ creativity and savviness.””

 

  • “Reading the news, you might think that “young, pretty, white women are being killed at astronomically high rates,” says Amy Michael, a biological anthropologist at the University of New Hampshire who works on unidentified bodies. But it’s actually Black men and Indigenous women who are disproportionately likely to be murdered, she says. “So where is that?””

 

  • “Whether because of media coverage, political pressure, or family advocacy, the high-profile cases are the ones that get the most resources, says Kenna Quinet, a professor emeritus of criminology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. “Law enforcement is a reflection of society,” she says, so the priorities of law-enforcement officials mirror the priorities of the society they serve.”

 

  • “Black genealogists wary of police use have deleted their profiles or opted them out of law-enforcement matching on GEDmatch, a popular genealogy site that allows DNA profile uploads. (While 23andMe and AncestryDNA maintain much larger DNA databases, they do not allow uploads. The only way to get a profile in those databases is to take saliva tests.) And because genetic genealogy sometimes requires building family trees that go back more than a century, a dearth of records for enslaved people, as well as difficulty accessing the records that do exist, can introduce further complications.”

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