Health & Science

How Australia Police hope to solve a murder from 1982 with new sketch made from suspect’s DNA

In Australia, the police of Queensland launched a new appeal for information about a cold case from 1982 with the help of DNA phenotyping that produced a digital facial image of the suspect.

digital facial composite from DNA phenotyping
Digital facial composite from DNA phenotyping of the suspect in the murder of Owen Edward Crabbe in Australia in 1982 | Queensland Police

The police of Queensland in Australia hope to solve a cold case from 1982 by finding the murderer of Owen Edward Crabbe, known as Eddie, with the help of a still recent technique called DNA phenotyping.

It launched on November 9 a fresh public appeal for information releasing a digital facial image of the suspect based on DNA from blood samples found on Mr. Crabbe’s body and at the crime scene.

Owen Edward Crabbe was 57 years old in 1982 and father of one when he was murdered in his hotel room while on a weekend away. Mr. Crabbe left Brisbane for a trip to Gold Coast and had told a friend he was going away with another friend named Michael, according to the police statement. He was found with his throat cut and jeans around his neck, according to 9news which also mentions he had recently split up with his wife and come out as gay.

A total of 70 witness statements were taken during the original investigation forty years ago but the police didn’t find the suspect. They believe the offender was with Mr. Crabbe in his hotel room where they consumed alcohol before the victim was violently assaulted. kicked, and fatally stabbed. The main suspect is believed to have been also severely injured.

Investigators from the Homicide Cold Case Investigation Team started a review of this unsolved homicide investigation in 2020.

A DNA profile has already been generated but it doesn’t match any person currently recorded on national and international law enforcement DNA databases. Investigators now hope the digital facial image created from a technology called DNA phenotyping can help.

digital facial composite from DNA phenotyping
Digital facial composite from DNA phenotyping details skin color, eye color, hair color and freckles with a confidence level. In this case, skin color has a 77 percent confidence level, and hair color 96 percent. | Queensland Police

Parabon Nanolabs, a company supported by the United States Department of Defense providing DNA phenotyping services to law enforcement and government agencies, explains that DNA carries the genetic instruction set for an individual’s physical characteristics like skin color, eye color, hair color, freckling, face shape and ancestry. By using a dataset matching genetic information (genotype) with physical attributes (phenotype), they then determine how the genetic information of a sample can statistically translate into physical appearance.

The statistics are created with data coming from DNA tests people can buy to know their ancestry. In fact, companies like FamilyTreeDNA or GEDMatch sell services to learn about family history and also have law enforcement programs.

The DNA phenotyping method has been tested for several years now. In the United States, DNA face mapping created in 2015 helped Maryland Police find three years later the murderer of a woman killed in 2005.

In 2020, Queensland Police released a digital sketch created from DNA phenotyping as they still couldn’t identify the body of a man found dead 12 years earlier. The new digital figure and the facial sketch of the man created previously varied substantially. But the man has not been identified, yet.

If DNA phenotyping can be used to try to identify bodies and solve murder cases, it however creates ethical questions. China for instance has been using DNA phenotyping to research how to tell if a person is a Uighur, the New York Times reported in 2019. DNA phenotyping accuracy is also questioned along with possible consequences in cases of inaccurate or wrong imagery.

In a 2020 article, French molecular biologist Bertrand Jordan, who specializes in genetics, wrote that the method had made great progress over the past decade but that law enforcement tended to overestimate the accuracy of the modeling.

But it remains that “information from the public is vital to solving” the murder of Mr. Crabbe, Queensland detective Tara Kentwell says. The police also launched a new reward of 500,000 Australian dollars (US$324,000) for any information that may lead to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murder. “Any person who was involved in the crime but did not commit the crime who comes forward and speaks with police, is eligible for this indemnity from prosecution,” stresses Police Minister Mark Ryan.

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