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Forensics ties suspects to unsolved crimes

In DNA, burglars don’t have a clue; cops do

Related articles: Feds to collect DNA on every arrest, Maryland gov. wants to expand DNA testing, Study: Forensic DNA underutilized in U.S.

By James B. Meadow
Rocky Mountain News

DENVER —Maybe the tuna sandwich had too much dill or not enough celery. But whatever the flaw was, it caused Roilen Ivester to spit the bite he took back onto the plate.

Whereupon, he returned the plate to the refrigerator and went about his business - which, in this case, happened to be burglary.

But by putting that bite back, Ivester was unknowingly helping police put the bite on him because, thanks to DNA testing that linked his saliva to the sandwich, expectoration will likely lead to incarceration.

As a result of what began in November 2005 as a 18-month federally funded DNA/burglary program, Denver law enforcement officials are able to employ the precision of that forensic science in the arrest and prosecution of what District Attorney Mitch Morrissey calls “serial burglars.”

DNA credited as a crime-stopper

DNA-testing technology has been used in many high-profile cases, including the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and the Tim Masters case.

In the Ramsey case, Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy used the lack of DNA to rule out the Ramsey family in the murder. Tim Masters was released from jail after DNA failed to connect him to the murder of Peggy Hettrick. Masters spent nearly 10 years in jail for the crime.

For Denver’s program, police were able to trap 95 industrious thieves, resulting in a 13 percent annual decline in burglaries over two years.

Given this, Morrissey isn’t kidding when he says “serial.” “Actually, it would be better to call them habitual criminals,” says the DA, explaining that, whatever you call them, these criminals together commit an average of 243 property crimes a year.

In fact, the arrest of just one serial burglar - who was caught thanks to good police work and his DNA - resulted in a 30 percent reduction in property crimes in the areas he had targeted.

That burglar was Michael Davis. Nailed by traditional police work, Davis was done in by the fact that police had obtained his DNA through blood he had shed when the owner of a home he was burglarizing caught him in the act and fought with him. Although Davis got away, his DNA - and subsequent confessions - tied him to numerous other burglaries.

There was no bloody encounter between Razjohn Smyer and a homeowner.

Instead, his habit of raiding the refrigerators of his victims and helping himself to a can of soda - he had a fondness for strawberry - led police to a string of burglaries that had his M.O. and DNA written all over them.

Plenty of sources, some unusual

Although DNA is most often obtained from prosaic sources such as cigarettes or blood around a window that was broken to gain entry, sometimes the way a burglar gives up his DNA can border on perverse.

Jonathan Nelson was prone to urinating on clothes belonging to his victims before he left. And Rodney Stearns is alleged to have visited his victims’ bathrooms and used a hand towel instead of toilet paper.

While degrees of perversity and perseverance may vary, the fact remains that there are more serial burglars out there than you might think.

Says Steve Cooper, the Denver Police Department’s recently retired division chief of patrol, who was an integral part of the federal program from its inception, “The odds of running across a burglar who commits just one burglary? Well, to be honest with you, I don’t know that I’ve ever run across any, except maybe the rare guy who gets caught on his first try.”

Whether a burglar is competent or klutzy, the first time he gets caught isn’t necessarily the first time he has robbed. But absent any fingerprints from the other crime scenes, police had no way of linking him to previous crimes. Which frequently led to lenient sentencing.

According to DA spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, “Without DNA, if you had a defendant charged with burglary of a dwelling for the first time, the court kind of sees it as an isolated, one-time property crime.

“It’s not uncommon for someone to get probation or minimal jail time because at a time when the prisons are bursting at the seams, the court isn’t about to send someone away for years just because he stole your TV set.”

But by using DNA samples to tie someone to numerous burglaries and file multiple charges, Morrissey’s office was able to obtain sentences with teeth. In fact, where the average jail time for a residential burglar apprehended through traditional investigation is about 1.4 years, serial burglars arrested with DNA evidence wind up with an average sentence of 14 years. In the averages, however, are some even lengthier sentences. Davis, for instance, got 21 years in prison for his burglaries.

Compelling success

Equally compelling is that DNA evidence often can mean the difference between the DA’s office deciding to prosecute or not prosecute burglaries. As Morrissey says, “When we have DNA, we’re eight times more likely to bring charges.”

Employing DNA to help solve burglaries pays huge dividends. According to Morrissey’s office, for every $1 invested in DNA forensics, more than $63 was saved in terms of police expenses and property loss.

Statistics like this are what prompt Cooper to enthuse that the “DNA program is hugely successful, extraordinarily successful.” They also cause him to add, “Look, you can’t have this kind of success and that kind of property crime reduction and quit it.”

Cooper is referring to the decision by Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman to keep the DNA / burglary program going after the federal money ran out in July 2007. Whitman worked with the Denver City Council and the mayor’s office to funded two full-time positions dedicated to the analysis of DNA in property crimes.

According to Greg LaBerge, director of the Denver Police Department Crime Lab, the success of the program is “due to the support of all officers from the chief to the youngest patrol officer realizing the power that DNA and DNA databases can have in identifying burglars.”

Of course, every now and then it doesn’t hurt to have a tuna sandwich that just doesn’t taste right to a hungry burglar.

Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain News

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