There will always be criminal cases, where the evidence DNA sample will not match either a suspect's DNA profile, or any in a criminal DNA database. In the absence of DNA-based mass intelligence screenings, including familial searching (both of which may be restricted by legislation), there is only one option to potentially avoid or retrospectively solve "cold cases": the DNA-based prediction of human externally visible characteristics of an unknown person based on the crime scene sample left behind. Predictive DNA markers are expected to be available for some group-specific appearance traits in the near future; although it is unlikely that we will soon be able to understand the biological complexity of individual-specific appearance. In suspect-less cases reliable DNA-based prediction of broader externally visible characteristics from crime scene samples are expected to reduce the potential pool of suspects by allowing police investigations to concentrate on specific groups of people. Here, we aim to describe the forensic motivations for DNA-based prediction of human externally visible traits as well as the scientific challenges of finding predictive DNA markers, and will discuss examples with promising (e.g. sex, eye color and hair color), as well as less promising expectations (e.g. adult body height), in the foreseen future. Despite the complex ethical and legal implications arising from DNA-based prediction of externally visible characteristics, we argue that their use does not lead to a violation of privacy. We suggest that likelihood-based results, rather than DNA data itself, should be provided to the police for investigative purposes avoiding data protection issues. Furthermore, we note that the risk of exacerbating social pressure on minority groups due to DNA-based prediction of externally visible traits in crime cases may be reduced rather than increased compared to a conventional eyewitness testimony. A firm legal basis will need to be established for the application of these promising qualitative techniques. To gain the attention of legislative bodies, we invite the forensic community to participate in a public discourse of these issues.

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Forensic Science International: Genetics
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Kayser, M., & Schneider, P. (2009). DNA-based prediction of human externally visible characteristics in forensics: Motivations, scientific challenges, and ethical considerations. Forensic Science International: Genetics, 3(3), 154–161. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2009.01.012