Rapist identified by genetic exam Innocent man freed after DNA test

April 28, 1992|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Cheryl J. Willis, 29, a bookkeeper from Parkville, was sleeping on her living room couch one hot summer night in August 1990 when she woke to anyone's nightmare.

A man had sneaked into her Harford Road apartment, placed a pillowcase over her head and was punching her in the face. The attacker then raped her and ran out the back door.

Bloodied, frightened and with a broken nose, Ms. Willis managed to catch a glimpse of the assailant as he ran toward her back door, but the haze of the television set provided only dim light.

Ms. Willis, who willingly identified herself for this article, later told police that she was certain she knew the man. It was her ex-boyfriend, she charged. And he was arrested.

But yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, it was not the ex-boyfriend who stood before a judge to be sentenced for the crime. It was another man, Gregory Ritter, who in February pleaded guilty to the rape.

Ritter, a carpenter from Hamilton, was sentenced yesterday to 40 years in prison by Judge J. William Hinkel for second-degree rape and burglary. As part of a plea bargain, charges of first-degree rape carrying a possible life sentence were dropped.

The story of how police and prosecutors ruled out the ex-boyfriend as a suspect and found Ritter is one of modern science, coincidence and luck, said those familiar with the case.

Soon after his arrest, the ex-boyfriend, protesting his innocence, agreed to submit to a genetic "fingerprinting," or deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), test. He sat in jail for four months waiting for the results.

A few days after the ex-boyfriend's arrest, Ritter was also arrested -- for drunken driving. Coincidentally, Ritter was sent to the Parkville precinct, where the ex-boyfriend was being held. He recognized Ritter as the former boyfriend of a woman who had once lived in Ms. Willis' house. He also noticed that Ritter appeared to be on drugs, and that he and Ritter looked alike. He called detectives and told them.

Had it not been for that chance encounter in jail, police may have never known of Gregory Ritter, said Scott Shellenberger, an assistant state's attorney.

After the DNA test came back negative on the ex-boyfriend in December 1990, the charges against him were dropped. Prosecutors got a court order to take blood samples from Ritter in January 1991. Five months later, the results came back from the FBI in Washington: A positive match between the DNA of Ritter's blood and the semen found in the victim.

"Without the DNA test," said Mr. Shellenberger, the ex-boyfriend "would probably be in jail today, serving a long prison sentence."

Noting that they had a fairly strong witness identification -- the victim knew her ex-boyfriend well -- Mr. Shellenberger said it's possible that a judge or jury could have convicted him of first-degree rape -- even though he didn't do it.

"But for that test, he could be the one serving a 40-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit," said the innocent man's attorney, Michael A. Zwaig.

The ex-boyfriend doesn't want to talk about the whole affair very much. "It happened, and it's over," he said. "I just want to put it behind me.

"It's good that they had the DNA test, but I'm still bitter about some things," he added.

Ms. Willis said she's grateful for the DNA test as well, because not only did it rule out the wrong suspect, but it also helped put the right man behind bars. "He [Ritter] could have gotten off without that test," Ms. Willis said, noting that it was dark in her apartment that night and she didn't see her attacker very well.

"I'm glad it's over," she continued. "He probably deserved more, but I'm glad for what he got."

Ritter apologized yesterday in court and said he had no memory of the attack, that he was drunk and high on drugs during that time.

But Judge Hinkel said he didn't believe Ritter couldn't remember the attack because Ritter had quietly entered the apartment and covered the victim's face, knowing she could identify him.

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