Lisa Ziegert disappeared from the gift shop where she worked on April 15, 1992, and her body was found four days later. From then until this past Monday, her murder remained unsolved.
Then on Monday, the local district attorney’s office in Massachusetts announced the arrest of a 48-year-old man for Ziegert’s death. Among the clues that led police to him was a computer-generated “mug shot” based on DNA found at the crime scene 25 years ago. Back then, the idea of predicting a face based on DNA would have seemed like science fiction. It is still rare today, but law-enforcement officials can quite easily order up such a test from the Virginia-based company Parabon NanoLabs.
Ziegert’s case is already being touted as an example of the power of new DNA technologies to solve crimes. In many ways, it’s the perfect example to take to the media: a young female victim, an infamous murder, a 25-year-old case. It’s unclear exactly how pivotal the DNA evidence was—the district attorney said “a number of factors” contributed to narrowing down the suspects—but there will almost certainly be more cases like this involving DNA.
With the cost of sequencing rapidly falling, forensics labs have been looking for new ways to generate leads out of DNA. “The idea of looking at markers of ancestry, eye color, and hair color has been attractive for years,” says Peter Vallone, who leads the applied-genetics group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. New ways of interpreting DNA, however, are also more reliant on algorithms that are often secret.