The narrative goes as this: Three men claiming to be wrongfully convicted have DNA tests run on the evidence in their case. The evidence doesn’t match to any of the them, but a single hair matched to a step-father of one of the victims is located. So this must mean these men are innocent? Not true, the answer is surprisingly not as simple as it would seem, and far more complicated. Despite that it has been all too often claimed that the DNA testings proved them innocent, it didn’t actually exclude them.
The natural question one may ask is, how it is that it didn’t exclude them? To answer this question, it first must be understood the situation at the crime scene, and how evidence was collected. The bodies had been submerged in the water, destroying precious DNA and blood evidence that may have been located at the scene. A possible semen stain which had been located on the pants of one victim, was more or less ruined from being in the water over night. This would make it much harder to find any physical evidence, as the submersion of the bodies, naturally washed away evidence.
Kermit Channell testified to the effects of water when it comes to physical evidence.
Fogleman: Alright. And um – in regard to these pants and all the other items that you examined, what effect if any does uh – an item of evidence being in water have on your ability to find items?
Channell: Uh – being uh – wet, especially being say, submerged in the water, or even being dirty or soiled has a very detrimental effect on any type of biological materials that you might find. Being in the water can make it virtually impossible at times to identify any type of material.
Fogleman: Okay. And uh – does cold water as opposed to hot water have any particular effect on blood in particular?
Channell: I believe with uh – there are some studies with one versus the other, but uh – regardless of water temperature, still it will deteriorate the sample.
Next one must consider how the bodies were recovered.
When the victims were recovered, the police had to enter the ditch where the bodies were located, and rifle around in the water, digging out clothing, as well as touching the bodies. This cross contaminated them, introducing hair and fibers to the scene which hadn’t previously been there before, which is surprisingly all too common in criminal investigations.
In the book “Bodies We’ve Buried” by Jarrett Hallcox and Amy Welch, it’s remarked upon, some of the items investigators accidentally introduce to the scene. One of which is even cigarette butts.
“…as much as 30 percent of all cigarette butts found at crime scenes are not left by the perpatrator, as one might assume, but by someone who actually processed the scene. It’s a little disconcerting to think that so much time and money is wasted on a potential suspect, only to find out that “suspect” is the chief officer.”
The book also states the following…
“If you ask any CSI what the biggest problem they face in the field is, they will almost always say crime scene contamination. Contamination of the scene can not only mislead the investigation, it can also be a defense attorney’s dream come true.”
One can see from the photos that they waded around in the water.
The clothing would then be collected and set on the nearby ditch bank picking up anything that may have been there as well.
Here one can actually see items floating around in the water unrelated to the crime, further contaminating evidence.
There had been garbage and debris through-out. A simple fact was that there had been hair and fibers at the scene which may not have been from the killer(s).
Adding to this, anything from the home of the victims had additionally been introduced to the crime scene. Hair and fibers from their home environment could have been stuck to their clothing that day, further complicating the matter.
Now according to Lisa Sakevicius in her courtroom testimony, Stevie Branch was tied with two different shoe laces.
20 Q. On Exhibit 81 — if you would refer to that exhibit.
21 A. That is from Steve Branch.
22 Q. What were your findings as to the knots on Exhibit 81?
23 A. Examination of the ligatures revealed a black shoestring on
24 the right side tied in three half hitches with an extra loop
25 around the leg to a single half hitch with a figure eight around
1 the right wrist. The left side consisted of a white shoestring
2 tied in three half hitches around the wrist to three half
3 hitches around the leg.
4 Q. So on the left side on the wrist you had three half
6 A. Correct.
7 Q. And on the ankle you had three half hitches?
8 A. Correct.
9 Q. On the right side on the leg you had three half hitches
10 with what?
11 A. An extra loop around the right leg.
12 Q. On the wrist you had?
13 A. A figure eight.
14 Q. With one half hitch. Is that right?
15 A. Yes, sir.
Now, the hair connected to Terry was located on a shoe lace used to bind Michael Moore, but as seen by the above testimony, Stevie was tied up with two different laces. This means that the lace used to bind Michael could have been Stevie’s. All this means then, is that the DNA test only proves that Terry Hobbs had been in the same home as Stevie, since he was his Step-Dad. It doesn’t actually connect him to the crime. And even if it were Michael’s shoe lace it would still be the same, since both boys were best friends, and often played in each other’s houses. All that can be really said about the hair is that it’s secondary transfer, and was likely brought to the scene by the victims. The defense also in an attempt to further push Hobbs as a suspect, tried to claim that a hair found on a tree stump belonged to Terry’s friend David Jacoby. This hair would match to over 7% of the population, and be found 2 full weeks after the bodies had been recovered. This meant that the hair could have come from anywhere, and belonged to dozens of people, including investigators, searchers, and family and friends of the victims, who had been to the scene since the crime had occurred.
Next, it should be considered that DNA was a new thing at the time, and evidence wasn’t collected as well back in 1993, as it would be today. Even in this age of the “CSI effect”, expectations are far too high, when it comes to evidence. Today, it can still be difficult to find the offender’s DNA. A prime example would be the Noura Jackson case. Jackson had murdered her mother in 2005. At the scene despite blood being everywhere and the fact that Noura cut herself during the crime, not a single speck of her blood or DNA was located that could prove she killed her mother. There was DNA found, but it didn’t match Noura. There was also a hair, which again didn’t seem to match Noura. There was also no blood in Noura’s car. She had seemingly lucked out and left no real physical evidence to tie her to the crime. What ended up proving that she was the killer, was the fact that she was caught on surveillance tape buying first aid products in the middle of the night, to treat a fresh cut on her hand which was even still bleeding in the video.
So, even today, DNA can be tough to link to a suspect.
For years there was confusion over the DNA results in the Boston Strangler case, with a recent DNA test proving that Albert DeSalvo was in fact the Strangler, where as a past DNA test had concluded that he wasn’t the Strangler.
This is from an old article on the case.
Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 23:23 GMT
DNA doubts over Boston Strangler
A forensic investigation has cast doubts over whether the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler actually was the infamous 1960s serial killer, and raised the possibility that the real murderer could still at large.
DNA evidence found on one of the 11 women killed by the Boston Strangler does not match that of Albert DeSalvo, who had confessed to murdering the women between 1962 and 1964.
James Starrs, professor of forensic science at George Washington University, told a news conference that DNA evidence could not associate DeSalvo with the murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan – believed to be the Boston Strangler’s last victim.
DeSalvo said he was the killer while serving a life sentence on unrelated crimes. He later recanted, but was knifed to death in 1973 before any charges could be brought.
Sullivan’s body was exhumed last year and DeSalvo’s a few weeks ago as part of the efforts by both their families to find out who was responsible for the murders.
The women were all sexually assaulted before being strangled.
Professor Starrs said an examination of a semen-like substance on her body did not match DeSalvo’s DNA.
“I’m not saying it exonerates Albert DeSalvo but it’s strongly indicative of the fact that he was not the rape-murderer of Mary Sullivan,” Professor Starrs said.
Mary Sullivan’s nephew, Casey Sherman, asked Professor Starrs to investigate the case, after learning of his involvement in other high-profile identification cases like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the outlaw Jesse James.
“If DeSalvo didn’t kill Mary Sullivan, which he confessed to, he didn’t kill any of these women. And the real killers of these women…are still out there and they need to be brought to justice, ” Mr Sherman said.
The latest development may force the police to reopen one of America’s grizzliest crime chapters.
The killer of DeSalvo himself was never caught, and the official aim of the new investigation is to uncover the murderer’s identity.
But DeSalvo’s relatives hope the tests will also clear him of the serial murders.
The DeSalvo and Sullivan families believe DeSalvo confessed to the crimes in the hope of securing lucrative book and film deals.
Dan Sharp, the lawyer representing the DeSalvo family, has pointed to large discrepancies between every DeSalvo confession and every crime scene.
Last year, the Massachusetts Attorney-General reopened the investigation into the case.
But the two families have accused the department of stalling in order to avoid examination of how prosecutors came to accept DeSalvo’s confession in the first place.
There would also be two books put out proclaiming that DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler, criticizing both the confessions, and the physical evidence.
A quote on the matter from the book “Body in Question” By Brian Innes.
This excerpt is found on page 211.
“In December 2001, DNA analysis of semen stains from the underwear of the Strangler’s victims raised doubts about the killer’s identity, but there is no question that further similar killings did not occur following DeSalvo’s confinement. Commented one pathologist, “Not finding someone’s DNA at a crime scene doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
The statement that just because someone’s DNA wasn’t found, didn’t mean they weren’t there, would prove accurate. As a new DNA test who show that DeSalvo was the Strangler.
Now, this is from a more recent article.
“The discrepancy between the 2001 results and today’s announced match might come down to the different samples analyzed by the different labs. “What [the 2013 investigators] have are slides from the crime scene that have semen on them, presumably from the perpetrator,” says Foran, whereas his team examined samples taken from Sullivan’s exhumed corpse. “One thing that confuses me is why they didn’t test those 15 years ago, because they could have. And we certainly did ask for them back then.” Add that to the long, long list of questions about the Boston Strangler case that might never get answered.”
DNA tests on the remains of a man who once claimed to be the “Boston Strangler” confirm he killed the woman believed to be the serial killer’s last victim, authorities said Friday.
Lab techs were able to match DNA taken from the body of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, who was raped and murdered 50 years ago, to that of suspected killer Albert DeSalvo — who many believe was responsible for the slew of deaths that terrorized Boston in the 1960s.
DeSalvo admitted to killing Sullivan and 10 other women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964, but later recanted. He wound up in Walpole prison on other charges. He was later killed there by another inmate.
Authorities said recently that new technology allowed them to test DNA from the scene of Sullivan’s death and get a match with DeSalvo that excluded 99.9 percent of suspects. Investigators unearthed his remains a week ago to confirm.
Now over the years the defense team had tried to claim that a hair found at the crime scene from a black man was proof that their clients were innocent. They coupled this together with a sighting of a black man at a Bojangles restaurant. This was a black homeless man who had blood on him, and used the women’s restroom on the night of the murder. The man seemed disoriented and washed up in the bathroom, before leaving.
When this suspect failed, they tried to blame one of the step-parents. First they accused John Mark Byers, the Step-Father of Christopher Byers. Years later during a bitter divorce Pam Hicks, the wife of Terry Hobbs would accuse him of having molested their daughter in order to win custody of her. When this accusation failed she tried to claim that Hobbs was the real killer of her son. These accusations originated from a rumor created by her sisters, after the murders, and seemed based on their dislike for their brother in-law. The defense team soon seized on this, and pointed out how they had a hair that matched to him at the crime scene. In truth however there were countless hairs, probably several just from family members. DNA testing couldn’t even match some of the evidence at the scene to the victims, despite that they had to have been the source of some of it.
With all this background information laid out, let’s get into the documents pertaining to the DNA. Now this link shows the DNA profiles of both the victims and the WM3.
Next you have the document here from Bode, which demonstrates which items had mixtures. The items are the combined ligatures from Stevie (34AB) and Michael’s penile swab (5D).
Now here, It tells where on the charts to look for these mixtures. The locus here is D5S818.
From the information shown here pertaining to the ligature, the results on that locus are 10, 11, and 12. The results are in the fifth column. Now here should only be two numbers, but instead it’s three.
The DNA from the ligatures is compelling, in that possible tissue had been recovered from two other ligatures. This tissue, could have been left by the killer(s), and gotten there as they tied the victims. It was found though that this possible tissue they recovered was far too small, and decomposed to get DNA from.
Michael DeGuglielmo would testify to that fact at trial.
23 Q. What were the results on this Q4 and Q39, the possible
24 tissue from ligatures?
25 A. In those particular items we were not able to detect any
1 DNA from the isolation. When we initially begin a test, the
2 first thing that we do is to go through whatever the material is
3 — if it is tissue or blood — and to remove the DNA from it so
4 we can work with it.
5 Initially we go through and we quantitate that to determine
6 how much DNA is present if it’s there. We were not able to
7 recover and detect any DNA from those two items, and
8 subsequently the testing yielded no results as well.
9 Q. What are the reasons for the inability to get DNA from
10 these possible tissue specimens?
11 A. It can be one of several things. First of all, tissue
12 specimens even more so than bloodstains or seminal stains tend
13 to degrade, in other words, decompose and break down. The
14 reason for that — ah, fluids that make stains dry and when they
15 dry, they are fairly well preserved and they can last for a
16 longer period of time. But tissue or any biological material
17 that is not preserved in some way will break down.
18 Tissue specimens that you’re going to analyze generally are
19 best if they are frozen because that prevents them from
20 decomposing. When that decomposition occurs, the DNA breaks
21 apart and becomes in very small pieces so it is very difficult
22 if not impossible to test it.
23 The other possibility is these were very small samples, and
24 there may have been too little there to have recovered from for
25 the testing anyway.
1 Q. So despite your best efforts you were unable to get any DNA
2 from those items.
3 A. That’s right.
So, the killer(s) could have left DNA on the ligatures from handling them. This tissue was found on the bindings of Chris Byers, and Michael Moore, but this DNA was from the bindings on Stevie Branch, and could therefore have been left on his ligature, just as the tissue had been left on the others.
Moving on to the next item.
On the swab the numbers are 9, 12, and 13. The results are found in the second column. Again there should only be two numbers.
Now going back to the chart that lists the DNA profiles of all victims, and the others tested, on the D5S818 locus you have:
Echols is 11,12
Miskelley is 11,12
Baldwin is 9,9
Moore is 9,13
Branch is 10,12
Byers is 11,12
The ligatures’ results for that locus read 10, 11, and 12.
This means for that locus, alleles could be present from Echols, Branch, Misskelley, and, or, Byers.
From the same ligature, the results for D3S1358 match only Steve out of the six people.
Also from the same ligature, on the locus D13S317, the results read 8 and 11.
Both Branch and Echols have the same results on their known samples for this locus.
On Micheal’s penile swab, the results for the D5S818 locus are 9,12,13 .
Looking at the chart that lists the DNA profiles of all victims and the WM3 as relates to the D5S818 locus it reads as follows:
Echols is 11,12
Misekelley is 11,12
Baldwin is 9,9
Moore is 9,13
Branch is 10,12
Byers is 11,12
All parties have either a 9, 12, or 13 at this locus, so no one can be excluded.
So, as can be seen, the men were not absolutely cleared of this crime by DNA.
They were also further linked to this crime through DNA located on a necklace belonging to Damien Echols. Blood was found on it that matched to Echols, along with blood from either Stevie Branch or Jason Baldwin. The testing at the time couldn’t say for sure if the blood was Stevie’s or Jason’s, and because of this testing all of the blood samples are used up, and impossible to re-run.
This testing is discussed in this deleted scene from Paradise Lost.
What follows are excerpts from a letter by Barry Scheck.
“Michael M. Baden, M.D., director of the Medicological Investigations Unit of the New York State Police, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary indicated that ‘in less than 10% of murders, the criminal leaves DNA evidence behind.'”
“James Christy, director of the Future Explorations Unit of the Department of Defense’s Cyber Crime Unit was quoted as saying that “only about 1% of criminal cases introduce DNA evidence.”
“Nonetheless, there is no rigorous study I know of that establishes whether there is a higher percentage.”
Barry Scheck – Letter to the Commission | Maryland Citizens Against State Executions
Part of an article on DNA in criminal cases.
“At criminal trials, there is always talk about doubt, reasonable doubt. But in recent years, with the rise of DNA technology and other forensic evidence techniques, many Americans have a growing sense of confidence, if not certainty, that we’re locking up the guilty and freeing the innocent. The backbone of modern justice, it seems, is not a judge in a long, black robe, presiding over a courtroom, but a forensic analyst in a crisp, white coat, laboring over a microscope. In science we trust.
A 2006 survey of more than 1,000 Michigan jurors found that nearly half of the jurors expected to see some sort of scientific evidence in every criminal trial. Nearly 75 percent expected to see scientific evidence presented in murder trials. And still another study, published just this year, found that people trusted such evidence almost blindly. In this study, a random sample of 1,201 potential jurors in California said they considered scientific evidence, like DNA and fingerprints, to be far more reliable than the testimony of police officers, eyewitnesses, or even the victims themselves.
Prosecutors call it the CSI effect, suggesting that fictional television shows, like the long-running “CSI,” helped convince science-wary Americans to believe in the power of forensics. But the facts haven’t hurt, either. At trial, when possible, prosecutors are always keen on
calling forensic experts to testify — even when no forensic evidence has been found. Failure to do so, prosecutors say, would almost surely sink their chances of winning a conviction.
But does forensic evidence really matter as much as we believe? New research suggests no, arguing that we have overrated the role that it plays in the arrest and prosecution of American criminals.
A study, reviewing 400 murder cases in five jurisdictions, found that the presence of forensic evidence had very little impact on whether an arrest would be made, charges would be filed, or a conviction would be handed down in court.
A mere 13.5 percent of the murder cases reviewed actually had physical evidence that linked the suspect to the crime scene or victim. The conviction rate in those cases was only slightly higher than the rate among all other cases in the sample. And for the most part, the hard, scientific evidence celebrated by crime dramas simply did not surface. According to the research, investigators found some kind of biological evidence 38 percent of the time, latent fingerprints 28 percent of the time, and DNA in just 4.5 percent of homicides.”
In a letter from Bode Laboratories, they identify these two locations as possible DNA mixtures. It also mentions a allele, that doesn’t match either the victims or the convicted found on Stevie’s genitals. It’s unknown how this got there, or it’s significance. One could suggest it could have gotten there from moving or handling the bodies, as they were transported from the ditch and crime scene by investigators.
Both of the mixtures mentioned in this letter are in locations, that it would be expected DNA from the WM3 to be located. The DNA was located on Stevie’s ligatures, and on Michael Moore’s genitals. In the past, there had even been possible tissue pulled from the other ligatures, but the tissue had likely decayed, making it unusable. With that in mind though a mixture at this location, could suggest this was the killer(s) DNA. While not major DNA, it doesn’t exclude the WM3 as having contributed it. And this DNA could very likely be from whoever tied the ligatures.
What this all means is that the men convicted of this crime cannot be claimed to be proven innocent through DNA, due to the DNA evidence recovered from the victims does not exclude them. Blood located on a necklace belonging to Echols may also have been from one of the victims, seeming to further implicate the men convicted. And when one considers that DNA is only found in a small percentage of murders, despite a widespread notion that the offender should always leave behind DNA, it seems to further weaken the claim that DNA proved them innocent.