Chasing The Grateful Doe
After taking a class that focused on using DNA profiling to identify missing persons, I ran across the case of The Grateful Doe. I became very interested in the case, and followed it until he was identified, doing my own research along the way. This article is the product of my slight obsession with that case.
On June 26, 1995 there was a car crash in Virginia that claimed the lives of two young men. One of those men went unidentified for more than 20 years. During that time, he was dubbed The Grateful Doe, as the only items found with his body were two Grateful Dead tickets, a Bic lighter, a mysterious phone number, and about a dollar worth of quarters. Law enforcement speculated that the unidentified young man was hitchhiking, and the driver who picked him up had most likely fallen asleep at the wheel.
An attempt was made to identify him via fingerprinting and dental records, but was unsuccessful. Due to the damage to his head and face, morgue staff were unable to release postmortem photographs to the public. In 2012 an updated facial reconstruction photograph was created and released to the public by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. This led to more than 200 missing persons being ruled out with searching for the identity of the Grateful Doe. The case had been cold for more than a decade, when a group of internet sleuths on Reddit began working the case and advocating for his identification.
DNA profiling is a technique that uses epithelial cells such as: skin cells, saliva, blood, or hair to identify individuals by specific characteristics of their DNA. This process is commonly used to solve crimes, identify missing persons, determine paternity/maternity, and to identify organisms that cause diseases. Another term that is often used for DNA profiling is DNA fingerprinting. Scientists who profile DNA rely on the use of polymorphisms called short tandem repeats or STRs. These are the sections of our DNA that contain the copies of our nucleotide sequences, and they are found in the genetic loci of our DNA. DNA is stored within the nucleus of a cell, so a chemical solution is used to perforate the cell. Once that is completed the DNA can be collected and separated from other parts of the cell.
DNA profiling is an effective method of identifying missing persons, and without this technique the Grateful Doe may have never been identified. The process of DNA profiling has even been used to identify decomposing remains of victims from mass casualty events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Only a miniscule amount of DNA is needed for identification, whereas in other serological tests larger samples are required. Although rare, there have even been cases of DNA profiling being used to reduce and reverse wrongful criminal convictions. Amazingly and luckily, DNA can be taken from items that have been stored away for decades, which allows the process to be helpful in solving cold cases.
While DNA can be incredibly helpful, it also has a dark side. Law enforcement could potentially use DNA samples to locate and convict the family members of a person who submitted a sample. The DNA could be collected in a manner that violates an individual’s Fourth amendment rights. Infringing on the rights to privacy of a missing adult by allowing family members to attempt to locate them through DNA profiling is also considered to be abuse of the process. There is also the potential for misuse of stored genetic information that should be considered before submitting DNA samples.
DNA profiling can negatively affect human life in several different ways. Jurors can be negatively swayed by DNA profiling during trials. Employers can potentially discriminate employees based on their DNA fingerprint. An individual’s free will could be violated by collecting DNA samples without their explicit consent. The collection of DNA samples from a crime scene could result in the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. There is also the possibility that an abusive or neglectful parent could use DNA profiling to prove paternity/maternity and obtain visitation rights.
The process of DNA profiling is everywhere in popular culture, from Criminal Minds to the Investigation Discovery channel. The process is positively regarded by the media, and technological advances are set to make DNA profiling even more effective at catching criminals and identifying missing individuals. It is important to remember that there are rules and regulations that apply to DNA profiling. The samples are required to packaged securely, sealed, and labeled with the following information: judicial authorization, sample inside the sample collection tool, fingerprint impressions, and the signatures of the individuals who submitted and collected the DNA samples. Samples must be physically destroyed by burning or shredding, or otherwise making the information inaccessible. All DNA samples must be transmitted using an encrypted network, and all safeguards available should be taken to protect the individual’s privacy.
There are multiple ways that current scientific research is advancing the process of DNA profiling. With these advances, the process can be used to determine the physical characteristics of an individual. Improvements have been made to STR testing that will reduce the cost associated with DNA profiling. The techniques used for testing badly degraded DNA samples have been made more accurate, and there has been further development of mitochondrial DNA testing.
As is to be expected with any genetic testing, there are ethical concerns associated with DNA profiling that should be considered. Violation of privacy and confidentiality is at the top of the list. There is a possibility of a lack of informed consent, and denial of the right to make an informed decision. Another major concern is inappropriate genetic testing that occurs without the individual’s explicit consent. Scientists who use DNA profiling should do everything in their power to limit the risk of discrimination by the client’s employers, and should maintain respect for the client’s religious, moral, and cultural beliefs.
Thanks to DNA profiling and the internet sleuths from Reddit, the Grateful Doe was identified as Jason Callahan on December 9, 2015; two decades after his death. With further progression of the technology behind DNA profiling, we could see a dramatic decrease in the number of unidentified missing persons. Law enforcement’s job would be made easier in the event of mass casualty events, and families would be able to receive the closure that they so desperately need. Jason Callahan’s story touched a lot of hearts, and because of this science he was finally identified, no longer just a nameless face in a cold case file. Jason serves as a perfect example of why we should all embrace science and encourage advances in technology and research involving DNA profiling.
“My time is coming, any day, don’t worry about me, no.” -The Grateful Dead