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Montco DA releases DNA rendering of Norristown Farm Park rape suspect

A computer rendering based on the Norristown Farm Park rapist's DNA was released to media in a bid to find the suspect, a technology some have criticized.
This rendering is intended to resemble the basic physical characteristics of a rape suspect, based on DNA phenotyping. (Courtesy of the Montco DA's Office/Parabon NanoLabs)

To help solve a five-month-old rape case in Montgomery County, investigators have turned to DNA technology to digitally predict the suspect's appearance.

A new wanted poster featuring a rendering credited to Snapshot DNA Phenotyping has been released by law enforcement asking the public to call in if they recognize the suspect in the still-unsolved Aug. 1 rape.

The 19-year-old victim was in Norristown Farm Park around 10:30 p.m. when grabbed from behind by the suspect, whom she never saw, authorities say. He allegedly held a semiautomatic gun to her head during the assault. After months of investigation, authorities turned to DNA phenotyping.

"Since we have our attacker's DNA, we know who he is — we just don't know his name and where he lives," Montco DA Kevin Steele said in a statement. "While the composite is not expected to be a photo ID of the suspect, phenotyping puts a face on the rape suspect's DNA in the hopes that someone might recognize him and contact detectives."

Steele noted that investigators had exhausted other avenues of investigation before turning to the phenotyping image service, which is estimated to cost between $3,000 and $4,000.

“Montgomery County and West Norriton detectives have worked this case hard since the rape five months ago, evaluating and ruling out dozens of people developed of people of interest during the investigation," he said. “A gunpoint rape by an unknown attacker is rare in Montgomery County, thankfully. We are committed to using all resources available to make sure we find this attacker."

But so-called "forensic DNA phenotyping" has been questioned over its accuracy and criticized for the possibility it could lead to additional arrests of innocent minority suspects.

"Face reconstructions based on DNA phenotyping should not be used for any serious purpose or advertised to the public as a suspect, unless and until the science becomes very firmly proven and established," ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley previously wrote of the technology. "Such reconstructions are still science fiction, and putting out an image of a generic face with such a tenuous connection to reality is not 'trying every avenue,' it’s issuing baseless information that risks ensnaring innocent people within webs of suspicion and/or investigation."

Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based DNA lab, identified the suspect as 52.48 percent European and 45.27 percent African, which "is fairly rare and may indicate a recent European ancestor," according to the lab.

Scientists acknowledge that DNA phenotyping like the technology Parabon uses is not sufficiently advanced to replicate a suspect's individual face, but they say it can accurately predict general physical characteristics and pigmentation traits.

“We hope Snapshot’s predictions for this individual prove helpful in the investigation,” Dr. Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s director of bioinformatics, said in a statement. “His distinctive ancestry and associated phenotypes should significantly narrow the field of possible suspects.”

A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the suspect's arrest.

Tipsters can contact authorities MontCo Detectives at 610-278-3368 or West Norriton Township Police at 610-630-1701.

Learn more about Parabon NanoLabs' technology below.