Conviction resolves 2 DNA-reliant cases

Genetic evidence used increasingly

July 25, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

In 1995, Derrick L. Sellman pleaded guilty to abduction of a priest and sexual assault of a church worker, and received a life sentence, plus 50 years to serve at the same time.

In that case, Anne Arundel County police and prosecutors used what has become a routine forensic tool in linking a suspect and a crime: DNA. They tied Sellman's DNA to genetic material from the 1994 Glen Burnie crime.

A year later, Sellman's DNA profile came back to haunt him, tying him to two more crimes in an extraordinary case of detective work that is expected to become more common with the help of technology.

William T. Vosburgh, the forensic chemist doing DNA analysis for the police, had just begun in 1996 to compare DNA from new suspects to old, unsolved cases. In reviewing evidence from two 1990 rapes, the DNA ruled out a new suspect. But Vosburgh remembered seeing the DNA pattern before.

Vosburgh, who now runs the Prince George's County police DNA lab, made a startling discovery.

Thumbing through a ledger-like book of DNA profiles, comparing strips of alphabet soup and numbers - gobbledygook to most people - the sample from the 1994 church worker attack appeared similar, as did the DNA from a 1992 rape.

He did more tests, and the results stunned him.

"I pretty much ran across the street to Jeff Cover," Vosburgh said, referring to the police evidence chief. "The hairs were pretty much standing up on the back of my neck."

It was his first cold DNA hit.

Cases such as Sellman's, which relied almost exclusively on genetic testing results, are infrequent - but might not be for long.

"It's fairly unusual," said Michele Nethercott, an assistant public defender and DNA legal expert who is among attorneys who believe computerized state and federal DNA databases under development will result in computers finding matches much the way fingerprint databases have for years.

"In the future, there's going to be more of it," Nethercott said. "Mostly because of these databases, people are going to come up with more hits."

Cover, who said his office keeps evidence from solved cases for 10 years, agreed: "The next five years is going to be incredible."

More sophisticated DNA tests were done that prosecutors say make the odds 100 million to 1 that anyone other than Sellman was the rapist in the 1990 assaults. The victims were unable to make absolute identification of their attacker.

Yesterday, while dozens of potential jurors waited to be called, Sellman, spouting obscenities, dispensed with the trial.

In exchange for two consecutive 20-year sentences and dropping lesser charges, Sellman, 31, who had lived in the 1000 block of Monroe St. in Annapolis before being sentenced to prison in 1995, entered a form of guilty plea in the rapes of two women who shared a home just over a mile from his. Sellman maintained that he was not guilty.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom imposed two consecutive life sentences, suspending all but 20 years on each. The sentence was below the state guidelines, which called for 45 years or more.

"I think that he is not going to get out," said Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen E. Rogers. "Yes, that was the goal."

In preparing to try the case, Jonathan A. Gladstone, Sellman's defense lawyer, planned to challenge the quality of the DNA work. The state did not use the latest, most sensitive DNA testing, he said.

"When the DNA evidence corroborates other evidence, that's one thing. But where it is the whole show, I hope it gives one pause," Gladstone said in a recent interview.

He emphasized the "one," noting that one juror with doubts about the technology or the probability can hang the jury, which must be unanimous.

Nevertheless, that is a challenge for the defense, which is left to poke holes in the DNA testing process, possible contamination of samples and the like. That generally means hours of detailed scientific testimony for jurors.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said DNA makes the most compelling evidence for prosecutors, more powerful than a confession because "a confession is human and DNA is scientific."

DNA technology is making it possible to bring charges in situations previously unheard of, such as a rape case that Montgomery County prosecutors expect to try this summer. A woman who had passed out did not know she was sexually assaulted until a day later, when she went to a hospital complaining of soreness, Gansler said.

A Gallup Organization poll conducted in March found that Americans do not seem convinced that DNA evidence is entirely reliable. Overall, 77 percent found it to be very or completely reliable. Fifty-eight percent of nonwhites thought DNA testing was very or completely reliable, while 81 percent of whites felt that way.

"Jurors generally will not accept DNA alone. They have some reluctance to just blindly accept the science," said Richard Finci, president-elect of the Maryland Criminal Defense Association.

No trial date has been set for Sellman's third rape charge, in the 1992 attack, and it was uncertain if Gladstone, hired by the Office of the Public Defender for Sellman, would continue to represent him.

Much of yesterday morning was taken up with Sellman criticizing Gladstone. He said he wanted to fire Gladstone and act as his own lawyer, then said with the judicial system against him, he did not want to be in the courtroom for his trial. He chose to stay, having Caroom convict him after Rogers read a statement of the case.

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