Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In Michigan, A Community Clashes Over DNA Testing


WHEN Ervin Mitchell's DNA test reached the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Police Department, officers traded high-fives. The results suggest that Mr. Mitchell is the brutal serial rapist who has attacked 13 women here in the last two years.

But just as residents of this college town begin to unhitch their door chains, a controversy builds.

About these ads

During their eight-month search for the rapist - identified by witnesses as a six-foot black man - police in this predominantly white community identified 730 suspects and took 160 DNA samples, hoping to match a suspect's genetic materials with DNA-bearing evidence left at a crime scene. Local black leaders, outraged by what they consider the random interrogation of black men, are calling for a bottom-up review of the department's conduct.

The case raises troubling questions for law enforcement nationwide. While DNA testing makes it easier to identify criminals, it also makes it easier for police to tread on the civil rights - and dignity - of the innocent. Critics say that in investigations where the suspect is black, the victim white, and the public impatient, police sensitivity can be left by the wayside.

As Ann Arbor's 120,000 residents have learned, it only takes one case to begin to tear a community apart.

``When this investigation began, the police should have come to the black community first and asked for our help,'' says social worker Carmelita Mullins. ``Instead, they jumped right to DNA. If they had done this to the white community without consulting them first, there would have been a revolution.''

Ms. Mullins, a member of a group called the Coalition for Community Unity, argues that in a case as racially sensitive as this, the police should only have used DNA testing as a last resort.

``Now, whenever there's a crime, the police will think they can come to the black community and demand blood,'' she says. ``Even if it's done discreetly, it's still a form of psychological lynching.''

But police contend that the case put the department in an impossible position: While many whites, especially women, blasted them for not doing enough, the black community scolded them for going too far.

About these ads

Sgt. Phil Scheel, spokesman for the Ann Arbor Police, says that only 10 of the 160 DNA samples taken were obtained with search warrants. The rest, he says, were consented to or volunteered by men anxious to clear their names. To those who felt humiliated by the process, Sergeant Scheel explains: ``Investigative police work is a difficult job. By the nature of the work, it's going to offend some people. There's no way to get around that.''

Indeed, many black men in Ann Arbor are bitter about the way the police conducted the investigation, especially those who say they were approached for blood samples while at work. Others say they were unaware of their right to decline the test.

But those who did refuse say they became targets.

ANN ARBOR resident John Spivey, a self-employed craftsman and photographer, says that after he declined a test, he was routinely followed by slow-rolling police cruisers while walking his dog at night, and on one occasion was approached by a white woman he believes was a police decoy.

In November, police presented Mr. Spivey with a warrant for his blood. As probable cause, the warrant cited three incidents in which Spivey allegedly harassed women, information that Spivey calls ``about 10 percent truth and 90 percent exaggeration.''

Spivey says he was surprised that police obtained the warrant, because he has never been charged with a crime, was not tied to the rapes by any physical evidence, and is 11 years older than the suspect's estimated age. When police presented the warrant, Spivey says, one officer referred to him as ``O.J. Simpson.''

``Just like the women in this town, I was scared to go out by myself at night,'' Spivey says. ``Only I wasn't afraid of crime, but of overzealous police.''

The Ann Arbor police refused to comment on the specifics of the Spivey case.

Charles Barna, supervisor of the Michigan State Police DNA laboratory, says those who advocate curbs on DNA testing are shortsighted. Limiting the power of police to use DNA, he says, would not only deny them an invaluable method of proving guilt, but would also rob suspects of an opportunity to prove their innocence. DNA technology excludes far more people from wrongdoing than it includes, he adds.

``I can understand why some people in Ann Arbor might be frustrated, but when you're dealing with a serious situation like this, you can't leave any gray areas,'' Mr. Barna says. ``The bottom line is that the technology did its job, even if it took 160 tests to get there.''

The Ann Arbor DNA sweep is one of the largest in the 10-year history of the technology, but by no means the largest ever. According to John Hicks, former director of the FBI crime laboratory in Washington, D.C., the DNA method was pioneered by British police, who once tested 2,500 men in a 1984 rape and homicide investigation. Since then, he says, police in Florida, Indiana, and South Carolina have taken more than 100 samples during a single investigation. Although he calls this volume of testing ``probably overkill,'' he says the practice hasn't hit any legal snags.

``It all depends on the strength of the probable cause,'' says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

In a 1991 serial murder case in Gainesville, Fla., Dr. Fox says police took more than 100 DNA samples, but never asked for blood unless there was a ``reasonable amount'' of physical evidence linking a suspect to a crime scene. ``It was not just a fishing expedition,'' he says.

While Ann Arbor police maintain they did nothing wrong, coalition member Larry Fox says the investigation crossed the line. Public panic, coupled with the lure of a $100,000 reward, prompted white Ann Arborites to report their black neighbors indiscriminately, Larry Fox says.

In turn, he argues, the police used this abundance of tips to investigate ``virtually every black man in the city'' while Ervin Mitchell - whom police had already questioned in 1993 regarding an attempted rape - continued to slip through their dragnet.

Larry Fox points out that in the end, it was a call from a cab driver who had suspicions, not any amount of sleuthing, that led to Mitchell's arrest on Christmas Day. Mitchell has not yet been charged with the rapes pending further DNA analysis, but he has been arrested and held on unrelated unarmed robbery charges.

IN addition to the inquiry, coalition members are demanding that police destroy the DNA samples taken from innocent men and establish a citizens' committee on rape prevention to oversee future investigations.

Ann Arbor Mayor Ingrid Sheldon says the coalition should get what they want, but criticizes them for failing to appreciate the difficulty they caused the police. ``They condemned the police during the search, and they condemn them now that they've caught the man,'' she says. ``I do not think our department is perfect, but I don't see how they could have caught the culprit without hurting anybody's feelings.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.