DNA tests solve cold cases

Baltimore police, ABC-TV's `20/20' reap data's benefits

January 15, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police reached an agreement last year with the ABC News program 20/20 to help finance DNA tests in 50 dormant cases - an arrangement that ultimately would solve a 1989 homicide and exonerate a man charged in an August rape.

Police officials say the results are stunning and bolster Mayor Martin O'Malley's pleas to Maryland lawmakers to increase state funding for DNA testing and require more convicted criminals to submit samples to a state database.

"These guys are not just killing and raping people," said Ed Koch, director of the Baltimore police crime laboratory. "They are committing burglaries, holding up people. This will give us the possibility of getting them sooner."

DNA has long been touted as a powerful tool for law enforcement. But Baltimore police and city officials say Maryland lags behind other states in its use.

O'Malley is asking state legislators to spend $4 million to buy equipment and hire technicians statewide to test more DNA samples. The city has a backlog of 5,000 unsolved cases that might offer DNA evidence. Specimens range from hair to specks of blood - all stored in the evidence room at police headquarters or in a 6-foot-tall freezer in the crime lab.

O'Malley also is asking lawmakers to pass legislation that would require anyone convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor to submit DNA samples to a state database.

Maryland law now requires state officials to enter DNA profiles of those convicted of murder, rape, assault and child abuse.

The state has 13,500 DNA profiles in the database, Koch said. By contrast, Virginia, which requires DNA samples from all convicted felons, has 150,000.

The ABC program 20/20 paid about $8,750 for 25 DNA tests at a private laboratory, police said; city police picked up the tab for the other 25. A story based on the results of the tests is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. Jan. 25, an ABC News spokesman said.

The spokesman declined to comment on the agreement reached last summer.

Testing began in late August, Koch said.

Of the 50 cold cases examined for 20/20 - many chosen at random - technicians were able to obtain 39 DNA profiles. Five matched profiles in DNA databases kept by Maryland and other states.

As a result, two men have been charged with violent crimes, and detectives plan on charging a third with rape, police said.

Last week, a city grand jury indicted Anthony Mitchell, 38, on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of Charlene Hardin, 20, who was found beaten and raped in an abandoned locker room beneath the stands of Kirk Athletic Field in Northeast Baltimore in 1989.

Hardin, who lived a few blocks from the field, was last seen alive eight days earlier as she was being dropped off after work two blocks from home. The crime scene offered few clues, except for traces of bodily fluid found on the victim.

Donald E. Worden of the homicide unit investigated the case as a detective, then as a civilian contract employee in the department's cold case squad.

For 12 years, he had been unable to crack the case, chasing down false lead after false lead. Then, last month, he learned that a DNA test, done in connection with the 20/20 program, linked the bodily fluid to Mitchell, who is serving a 25-year sentence in state prison on the Eastern Shore on an attempted rape conviction.

"I was really amazed that they found someone," Worden said. "It's one of those that stuck with me for a long time. It was just a case lying there."

Homicide Detective Joseph Kleinota, who also worked on the investigation, said: "This case would never have gone anywhere without [DNA testing] unless this guy said something to somebody else. ... Some cases never go down."

The tests for the 20/20 program also linked suspects to several sexual assaults.

In November, police charged Hubert Taylor Jr., 43, of the 3100 block of E. Fayette St., with two rapes in 1997 after obtaining DNA matches, said Lt. Sandra Joyce of the sexual assault unit.

But police were somewhat fortunate to obtain a match on Taylor, who had been convicted of cocaine possession in Virginia, which requires all felons to submit DNA samples. If he had been convicted of the same crime in Maryland, his DNA profile would not have been in the state or national databanks.

Detectives will likely charge another man in a 1999 rape, after they receive confirmation of the test results, Joyce said.

In another case, a DNA test linked a suspect to a 1996 rape investigation, but prosecutors are unlikely to press charges because the woman has offered several different stories about the encounter, police said.

"Who else knows what's in that database?" Joyce said. "Maybe we get some other hits, clear some other cases, get some more suspects off the street. That's what it all boils down to. We want that stuff tested, solve some more crimes."

The DNA tests exonerated a man charged in an East Baltimore rape last August after being picked out of a photo lineup by the victim, police said.

Police said that they eventually would have determined that the man was innocent, because they had planned to test the DNA themselves. But the sample was inadvertently included in the 50 sent to an outside laboratory for the 20/20 program, detectives said.

The charges were dropped in November, records show.

To help detectives solve recent crimes more quickly, city police began operating their own DNA laboratory in July, and hope to test more than 200 samples a year.

Koch said city police were also awaiting word on a federal grant that would finance about 1,000 DNA tests per year in cold cases.

"If we got six hits out of 39, how many do you think we could have gotten out of 5,000?" Koch said.

"This is an important tool."

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