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DNA dragnet in Va. challenged

Police targeting black males in rape investigation

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Steven Turner wondered who officers were looking for when a police van pulled up as he was riding his bicycle around dusk in his neighborhood near the University of Virginia.

It turned out police were looking for him, in response to a call about ''a suspicious person riding a bike."

The UVA graduate student had become the latest target of a DNA dragnet for a serial rapist. In a practice decried as racist, police have stopped nearly 200 black men to ask them for cheek-swab tissue samples.

Turner, 27, said he refused to give the officers a cheek swab that August night, then refused again when police showed up at his home seven months later, because he felt his rights were being violated.

''The question was not my guilt or innocence," Turner said. ''I know where my DNA has been."

Police began stopping black men for DNA tests in November 2002, then stepped up the program last year after a victim got a good look at the rapist and described him as a 6-foot black man in his early 20s with an athletic build. The rapist is being sought for six attacks in the area between 1997 and 2003.

After black community leaders told Police Chief Timothy J. Longo that the testing amounted to racial profiling, Longo agreed in mid-April to place limits on the tests.

Police can no longer request cheek swabs from black men simply because they look suspicious or resemble a police sketch of the rapist. Officers now must notify a supervisor first, then inform the men stopped that they do not have to give a sample. If the men refuse, the officers will need to get a court order.

Of the 197 black men who had been stopped by police and asked to give a sample, 187 complied and all were cleared. Longo said police would return or destroy the samples.

In Turner's case, two officers showed up at his home in March requesting a sample again. He contacted Rick Turner, UVA's dean of black studies, who put together a community forum after receiving other complaints about the testing.

''The African-American men in this community had to tell their stories about the humiliation they felt," said Rick Turner, who is not related to Steven Turner.

Not everyone has objected to the testing. The officers ''were just doing their job," said Gary Spry, a black shop owner who has not been stopped by police.

But UVA student Kasie Scopetti said police have mishandled the investigation. ''I want them to do their job, but I also believe there are certain individual liberties that can't be infringed on," Scopetti said.

Jessica McGrane of the Sexual Assault Resource Agency said the police investigation has damaged race relations in Charlottesville, best known as the home of Thomas Jefferson and the university he founded. The city by the Blue Ridge Mountains has 41,000 residents, 22 percent of them black.

McGrane, a counselor, said the case perpetuates a rape myth.

''There is a myth that black men rape and they rape white women they don't know. The truth of the matter is the perpetrator and the victim are usually the same race, and 85 percent of the victims know their attacker," she said.

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said it is unlikely the DNA dragnet will catch the rapist.

''DNA dragnets are ineffective and a waste of police resources," Willis said. ''What they tend to be is a way for police to demonstrate to the public that they are doing something, that they are taking steps to solve the crime."

In the Baton Rouge, La., area police took more than 1,000 DNA samples from white men, based on a psychological profile and witness accounts, while looking for the killer of five women. A black man ultimately was arrested in May 2003 in the slayings.

''They wasted huge amounts of money, and that process did not get them any closer to the killer," Willis said.

But Longo said that DNA testing is the most efficient way to eliminate suspects and that the approach in Charlottesville is more focused than the DNA dragnet in Louisiana.

''We weren't approaching and accosting black men on the street," he said. Instead, officers had to have a reason to think the man was suspicious, such as a tip to police, the chief said.

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