Using DNA to Solve Old Crimes

Posted on: Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Keywords: New York City, Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., crime victims, Champion 2010 Awards, rape victim, murder victim, DNA, DNA collection

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Manhattan District Attorney and Safe Horizon 2010 Champion Awards Honoree Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. advocates for using DNA to identify those who commit crimes. A June 2011 New York Times article highlighting how DNA collected during a recent routine arrest helped solve a rape cold case highlights the importance of collecting DNA and why DA Vance wants New York State's legislature to allow expanded collection.

"In Manhattan, District Attorney Sees DNA as Tool to Solve Cold Cases" 
by Al Baker, New York Times
Published June 14, 2011

With the casual flick of a spent cigarette, Lerio Guerrero unwittingly demonstrated recent advances in DNA testing and a heretofore unspoken peril of smoking.

Mr. Guerrero, an ex-convict, was sitting inside a Brooklyn police stationhouse, arrested for trespassing but also a suspect in a sexual assault of a woman in Brooklyn last month. He did not offer a confession, but he left behind something nearly as damaging: his DNA on the butt of a cigarette he had been smoking. The cigarette was sent to the city medical examiner’s office, where tests showed that his DNA matched the rape kit and blood evidence from a different crime: the rape of a woman on the Lower East Side in 1998, according to Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney.

On Friday, Mr. Guerrero, 32, was charged in the earlier rape, accused of accosting a woman as she walked to her home on Orchard Street on Nov. 8, 1998, and his name replaced that of “John Doe,” whose DNA profile had been indicted in 2005, just before the clock ran out under the statute of limitations that was in effect at the time.

Notified of the break in the case, the woman, now a 40-year-old college professor living on the West Coast with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, said her emotions ranged from shock to gratitude, to anger that the suspect had been free so long.

“These are the things he got caught for,” she said. “Who knows what else he has done?”

The developments in the case underscored efforts by Mr. Vance to exploit the science of DNA testing. Mr. Vance has been educating his staff on the uses of DNA and has assigned a team to re-examine unsolved murders and sex crimes from years past to see if DNA evidence can help crack the cold cases.

So far, his office has secured 57 John Doe indictments, most of them in rape cases. As of March 10, 14 of them had been arrested, said Erin Duggan, the chief spokeswoman for Mr. Vance’s office.

Noting the passage of time between the crime and the arrest in the 1998 case, Mr. Vance is also pushing harder to broaden state laws to allow the collection of biological evidence from more people. Under current state laws, a DNA sample is taken after every felony conviction, but after only 35 types of misdemeanor convictions, said Karen Friedman-Agnifilo, the chief of the office’s trial division.

On Wednesday, Mr. Vance will travel to Albany in support of a proposal to expand DNA collection to include those convicted of all felonies and misdemeanors, rather than the 46 percent of all crimes now covered by state law. (Some states take DNA evidence from anyone arrested in a felony, a policy the Bloomberg administration supports.)

“It is hard to believe that the law restricts DNA collection to less than half of all crimes,” Mr. Vance said in a statement on Friday. “I urge our state lawmakers to fix this flaw by requiring DNA collection from all defendants convicted of a penal law crime.”

Mr. Guerrero, the rape suspect, had been arrested several times, for drunken driving, possession of marijuana and disorderly conduct. But none of his convictions were for crimes so serious that he would have been required to submit a DNA sample, so the authorities could not compare his genetic code to evidence recovered in unsolved crimes.

In Albany, one version of a DNA expansion bill was passed in the Republican-led State Senate’s Codes Committee last week and is ready for a floor vote. The bill cites a case brought by Mr. Vance’s office last year that led to a guilty plea by Curtis Tucker for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old six years earlier. But as the legislative session draws to a close, the fate of the measure is uncertain, since there is no bill with identical language, as is necessary, in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo endorsed the Senate bill, and encouraged his fellow Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, to adopt the Senate version. “Together, we share the sober responsibility of keeping New Yorkers safe from harm and ensuring justice for all of us,” Mr. Cuomo wrote in a letter addressed to Mr. Silver and Dean Skelos, the Republican Senate majority leader.

For his part, Mr. Vance is picking up where his predecessor, Robert M. Morgenthau, left off. He has set up a Forensic Sciences Cold Case Unit, whose mission is to train prosecutors to expand the use of DNA evidence to include assaults and property crimes; to re-energize efforts to solve unsolved homicides from decades ago; and to push for the new state law to broaden the state’s DNA databank to include all types of crimes.

Around the country, police departments and prosecutors have become increasingly reliant on DNA technology, seeking to detect the presence of DNA on evidence and figuring out ways to use it in criminal trials, several analysts said. Some have praised Mr. Vance’s efforts but also warned of the dangers of blindly accepting DNA findings, and some questioned whether tight municipal budgets or a lack of qualified personnel might undercut his efforts.

Steven D. Benjamin, a vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a member of Virginia’s Forensic Science Board, have said that prosecutors must vigilantly ensure the “integrity” of DNA evidence — that they must “learn the science” and continually question results they get from laboratories.

“DNA examiners are just as susceptible to human error and bias as anyone else,” Mr. Benjamin said. “There is no forensic technique where you take the evidence, stick it in the machine and the guilt comes out the other end.”

Mr. Vance said he had been “interested in the skepticism” that arose in the wake of cases where the failures of laboratories’ DNA work had become apparent. But he said he was not aware of any case of a “false positive” in New York, in which an innocent person was indicted based on DNA material that belonged to another.

“I think there is reason to be extremely comfortable with the integrity of the scientists, the testing procedures and the essentially error-free history to date,” he said.

One theme pushed by Mr. Vance and his team is their belief that criminals pursue a range of both violent and nonviolent crimes. It is another theme underlined by the Guerrero case.

The woman Mr. Guerrero is accused of raping in 1998 said that the attack had caused her anguish and that she lost friends and could not work.

“In the first year, I lived in a kind of fear, a super-dark place,” said the woman, who insisted on anonymity to protect her privacy.

Testifying in the grand jury gave her hope. But so much time passed that she wondered if her attacker had died or gone to prison for something else.

“I think, if he is out there, committing crimes over and over, you take fingerprints, why can’t you take DNA?” she said. “There is a correlation of petty crimes increasing into more serious crimes. It would behoove everyone to know who that person was.”

John Eligon contributed reporting.

Read the original article here: "In Manhattan, District Attorney Sees DNA as Tool to Solve Cold Cases"

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