2001 — the year in review:
The gene pool gets wider & deeper
As state officials continued to push for the expansion of DNA testing to include defendants charged with a multitude of crimes, as well as those already in prison, it quickly became apparent that local law enforcement was going to need some help cutting through massive backlogs of cases. Moreover, the sophisticated testing revealed some shocking lapses in quality control at a number of police forensic labs around the country.
In August, Virginia’s two candidates for attorney general urged that the state become the first in the nation to compile genetic records of those arrested for crimes even if they are never convicted. Such a data base would improve crime fighting and would make genetic testing as routine as fingerprinting, said Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat A. Donald McEachin. Under McEachin’s plan, police officials would have discretion over which crimes merited testing, but the records of those found not guilty would not be expunged. Kilgore favored testing everyone arrested for a violent crime.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in February that he would try through legislation to expand the state’s DNA data base to include samples from all felons.
In May, New York State Supreme Court Justice Richard F. Braun upheld an earlier ruling which found that requiring felons to provide blood samples for a DNA data base did not constitute additional punishment.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan signed a bill in June that would increase from 26 to 37 the number of predicate felonies for which DNA profiles could be created. The new offenses could add 65,000 to 85,000 profiles a year to the state’s data base.
Kentucky authorities said in September they would like to see all felons added to the state’s seven-year-old DNA data base. Testing is currently limited to convicted sex offenders, and the data base has yet to produce a single conviction.
In September, the Justice Department announced the disbursement over the next 18 months of $30 million in funds for the analysis of a half-million DNA samples in labs around the country. A total of 1 million samples have yet to be tested, including 180,000 rape kits, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
A backlog of DNA tests caused delays in the caseloads of Chicago police and the Illinois State Police in May. The average turnaround time for cases that come through the state police crime lab is eight months, said Jim Keaney, who heads the facility.
In February, the Allegheny County, Pa., crime lab reported a backlog of almost 2,000 cases.
Veteran Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist was fired in September by Chief M.T. Berry after an FBI probe requested by the department revealed that she had misidentified hair and fiber samples linked to a suspect or a victim in six of eight cases between 1981 and 1993. Gilchrist was also found to have given testimony that exceeded the “acceptable limits” of forensic science. In April, state officials had called a halt to the scheduling of executions until her work could be reexamined. Gilchrist’s analysis of murder suspect Jeffrey Todd Pierce’s hair had been instrumental in sending him to prison for 15 years. Pierce was exonerated and released on May 7.
Gilchrist was one of several forensic scientists whose work came under scrutiny last year. In other cities:
Pamela Fish, a Chicago crime-lab analyst, was accused by a California criminologist in February of have perpetrated a “scientific fraud” against four men convicted in the 1986 abduction, rape and murder of 23-year-old Lori Roscetti. The criminologist, Edward Blake, was hired to examine Fish’s lab notes, testimony and other data. While his findings do not definitively clear the men, Blake said he believed Fish testified falsely.
Former West Virginia State Police chemist Todd Owen McDaniel was sentenced to a three-month term in a halfway house last year after an FBI probe revealed that he had skipped required tests on suspected drug evidence.
In October, a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, Clyde Richey, won a default judgment against former state police serologist Fred Zain, whose testimony led to his wrongful conviction for a sex crime in 1979. Richey was accused of fondling a 14-year-old male page in a Charleston motel room and spent five years on probation. Zain, who worked for the state police from 1979 to 1989, had his work discredited by the state supreme court in 1993.
Oklahoma City police launched a DNA dragnet in May in the hopes of finding the killer of a 23-year-old University of Oklahoma dance student, Juli Busken. The blood of 200 men, including fellow college students and stagehands who worked at the university, was drawn. No matches were made. Police said they planned to test 200 more who either resembled a police sketch or had been identified as a possible suspect.
Some cities and states found success last year in “cold hits” or in matching genetic profiles to unknown suspects:
Five rape suspects were identified in California during the first week of February based on genetic crime evidence entered into a state data base that held DNA samples from felons already imprisoned for violent offenses.
Shortly after state workers in Ohio finished inputting 30,000 DNA samples from convicted criminals into a state data base on Feb. 14, a suspect, Sean B. Price, was arrested in connection with a 1999 rape in Symmes Township.
DNA samples from all of Wisconsin’s imprisoned felons led to four convicts being charged during the summer with committing rapes in Milwaukee County in 1995. Six more inmates have been linked to rapes.
A new forensic sciences division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office is charged with cracking cold cases and eliminating the backlog at labs run by various local police departments. A team of prosecutors will work with detectives and criminalists to get samples tested and compare the results to DNA collected from 200,000 convicted felons whose profiles are stored in the state’s data base. In August, a registered sex offender, Michael Hill, was charged with raping a 14-year-old girl in 1995 after the team got a hit.
State legislators in Illinois passed a law in January requiring police to find some way to preserve large pieces of evidence, including cars, which may hold DNA evidence.
The Knoxville, Tenn., Police Department announced in March that it would spearhead a project to create a National Forensic Academy for in-service criminalists. Knoxville is leading the project in part because of its proximity to the University of Tennessee’s Institute for Public Service, which houses the “body farm,” an outdoor laboratory for studying the sequence of human decomposition.
In December, DNA evidence also helped investigators to finally identify the serial murderer known as the Green River Killer. Forensic scientists linked DNA from longtime suspect Gary Ridgway to three of the killer’s victims. Other factors connect to a fourth victim, according to King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who worked on the original Green River task force. The Green River Killer is said to be responsible for the deaths of 49 women, mainly young prostitutes and runaways from a red-light district south of Seattle.
Doubt was cast on the identity of the Boston Strangler in December as well, after a DNA sample recovered from Strangler victim Mary Sullivan found not to belong to Albert DeSalvo. DeSalvo confessed to the murders of 13 women, although there was never any physical evidence at the crime scenes and he was not charged in any of the murders.
In other areas of forensic science:
New Jersey police agencies in October began using a “sequential lineup” instead of the traditional “six-pack” method of showing suspects’ mug shots to witnesses. Under the new system, witnesses and victims will be shown one picture after another in a photo array. The procedure is believed to improve the likelihood of a correct identification while significantly reducing the number of false identifications.
A possible key to measuring the pain and suffering of homicide victims was found by a forensic biologist with the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. According to a paper presented in February at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences by Lawrence Quarino, the level of small proteins called peptides, which flood the body at the time of injury, provide a gauge for the level of pain experienced by the victim.