DNA details: Why the racial analysis?

The Daily Progress' lead headline jumped off the stands on September 28. "Rapist's racial profile confirmed," boomed the bold print at top of page one. Had there been a break in the case? Was the capture of the man who has terrorized Charlottesville women for the past seven years close at hand?

Not quite.

"Testing of the local serial rapist's DNA shows a profile of his ancestry that supports victims' accounts that he is black," explained the story's first paragraph.

It has been well documented that all eight victims described the perpetrator as a black male. So why the need for scientific proof? And why the front-page treatment for information we've known all along?

"There was some pressure from the community," says Charlottesville Police Captain Chip Harding– in particular, members of the African-American community, many of whom are especially sensitive to the investigation following the random buccal swabbing of hundreds of local black men.

As first reported in the Hook in July 2003, the Charlottesville Police have cast a wide net to obtain saliva samples from hundreds of black men who turned out to be innocent. During a meeting with community members, Chief Tim Longo "made a promise," Harding says, to have the $1,000 test done on the rapist's DNA.

While all of the victims described their assailant as black, Harding notes there was enough variation to cause concern. "Some of the witnesses felt he was a light-complected black, some said dark," says Harding, although he attributes the discrepancy to the varying conditions, including lighting, at the time of each attack.

"You could have Hispanics who have dark enough skin but didn't come from Africa," says Harding.

The DNA test results show that regardless of skin tone, the rapist is definitively of African descent.

Rick Turner, Dean of African American Studies at UVA, says that he stands behind the DNA profile.

"The African-American community is supportive in assisting the police in any way they can in trying to find the serial rapist," says Turner, adding that the rapist has been "the major impediment in our community for far too long."

The test, performed by Florida-based firm DNAPrint Genomics, checks 176 genetic markers in the perpetrator's DNA sample and compares them to each of several different populations.

Those population samples are collected by a variety of different organizations, including Penn State, says Zach Gaskin, DNAPrint's technical coordinator of forensics.

Gaskin says the test– used by more than 50 police precincts nationally– helped solve the New Orleans serial killer case last year.

According to the test on the Charlottesville serial rapist, he is 85 percent sub-Saharan African, 12 percent European, and three percent Native American. Not everyone, however, is impressed with those figures.

"I personally think it was a waste of time because of how many people it does include," says Kenneth Jackson, a one-time Republican candidate for City Council. "I probably have some Anglo descent, and I definitely have Native American, so I would pop up on that scale."

To assist the police, DNAPrint sends photographs of people who share a similar genetic make-up with the suspect. But is there any chance the rapist is genetically of African descent but looks European or even Native American?

Very unlikely, says Gaskin.

"Forensically those kinds of little things don't matter," he says. "Three percent is not going to have a strong influence on who he is. Usually people don't start to exhibit the features of a population until they get to about the 30 percent level."

Did the test bring police closer to an arrest?

"I don't feel like it has," says Harding. "It didn't add anything to the investigation other than confirm what witnesses were saying." But even so, he doesn't regret the department's decision to do it.

"It really shows you why you have witnesses pick wrong people out of line-ups," says Harding. "It shows witness identification is tough."

And Harding says he'd support using the test in future cases, particularly where a victim couldn't see an attacker.

There have been three such cases in the past seven to eight years, Harding says. In one incident, a woman who was raped under Beta Bridge didn't know whether her attacker was white or black. "It turned out he was white," says Harding, "but we didn't know that."

Despite the lack of leads in the serial rapist case, Harding is hopeful police will get a break soon.

The rapist has been described as an African-American male with prominent eye-whites. But Harding says people shouldn't necessarily expect that he's "bug-eyed" all the time. The trait could be the result of his excitement, Harding says, or the result of drug use at the time of the attacks.

A $20,000 reward is offered for anyone with information leading to the arrest of the serial rapist. The 24-hour hotline for tips is 866-405-2519.

The September 28 Daily Progress trumpeted the news.