Guilty by DNA


Colorado authorities say DNA tracing helps them convict criminals as well as free the innocent.

As a Denver prosecutor in 1988, Mitch Morrissey, armed with fingerprints and a victim ID, was about to face down rape and burglary suspect Jeffrey Fishback. But Fishback's attorney requested a budding technology not yet established as a defense tool.

He broached the idea of DNA testing.

The prosecution and defense struck a deal to split the $5,000 cost of testing and expert testimony. But the defense backed out before testing was complete. Morrissey went ahead with it anyway. The result: Fishback's DNA matched that found in seminal fluid taken from the rape victim. Morrissey won a conviction and bagged Denver's first case based on DNA evidence.

Across the U.S. DNA technology is usually associated with efforts to free the innocent, but Morrissey continues to use it as a tool to lock away criminals. Morrissey's convictions that utilized DNA include some of Denver's most heinous and high profile criminals, such as High Line Canal rapist Robert Glasgow and rapist-murderer Ned Pace.

Today, Morrissey is the elected Denver District Attorney and a nationally recognized DNA expert. His web site is a national resource for prosecutors and police. But even as he continues to push the envelope on DNA–Denver investigators expect to complete the task of uploading DNA profiles from the city's outstanding 4,200 cold cases into a national database to look for matches and new leads by 2011–journalists are casting a critical eye on the use (or misuse) of DNA in the courtroom.

Fabricating DNA

In 2007 The Denver Post published “Trashing the Truth,” a four-part series blasting authorities for not assiduously preserving DNA evidence that might free innocents. (ED NOTE: the series won the 2009 John Jay Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting.) And The New York Times last year reported on a study that showed some scientists had been able to fabricate DNA . The lead author of the study was quoted as saying, “You can just engineer a crime scene. Any biology undergraduate could perform this.”

Nevertheless, Morrissey says such stories will not lead to a diminished use of DNA in criminal cases.

His own career illustrates the extraordinary variety of crimes that DNA tracing can help solve. When he was sworn in as district attorney in January 2005, Morrissey already had a long list of DNA work to his name from working as a prosecutor. Within 15 days of becoming district attorney, he filed Denver's first “John Doe” DNA case based on unknown DNA in a sex-assault. Within a year Morrissey identified John Doe as Terre Jefferson and charged him with second-degree burglary and indecent exposure in cases in which women woke up to find Jefferson fondling himself. Jefferson pleaded guilty in 2006 and was sentenced to 27 years in prison for three cases.

Burglars also have reason to fear exposure. During break-ins they have been known to snack on a homeowner's tuna sandwich or soda. They may cut themselves and leave behind blood. It all equals DNA evidence.

Average burglars may offend 140 times a year. while those deemed “prolific” can hit 242. Fingerprints, when they could be found, were a traditional backstop for police. But in 2005 the Department of Justice gave Denver a $417,000 National Institute of Justice grant which paid for collecting DNA from the scenes of burglaries and auto thefts. Since then, according to Morrissey, more than 95 prolific burglars have since been caught, and property crime rates in the city have declined about 15 percent for each of the three years between 2006 and 2008.

DNA evidence both increases the probability prosecutors will file a case and the penalty for offenders. When DNA links burglars to multiple thefts, they are handed an average of 14 years in prison. They would typically get only probation or a short jail term when a single theft is at issue.

Family Trees

Morrissey is also using family trees to expand the crime-fighting realm of DNA. That played out in Denver after 21-year-old Luis Jaimes-Tinajero allegedly broke into two cars. Blood traces he left behind from injuries sustained during the break-in went to the lab for DNA identification, which was in turn uploaded to the national CODIS (acronym for COmbined DNA Index System). Using special Denver police software, investigators found a likely family match with someone already in the database.

Switching to traditional techniques such as interviews and reading police reports, they settled on Jaimes-Tinajero. They got a warrant to swab him, and this past September he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal trespass. It was one of the first such convictions nationwide.

Such familial testing has come in for criticism from those who claim that it disproportionately targets minorities and ropes innocents into law enforcement surveillance. Morrissey disagrees. The bottom line, he says, is “most people don't commit crimes.”

DNA's use as a tool for convicting the guilty is of course not as well known as its use in overcoming wrongful convictions. In January the Colorado Justice Review Project, headed by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, began reviewing some 5,100 cases of prisoners convicted of crimes such as rape and murder to see if DNA can exonerate them. A number of agencies are involved in the review, including the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Colorado Public Defender's office.

So is Morrissey, who has long advocated for such a project.

Jeff Kass is the author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, and was a reporter at the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News for 10 years. His author web site is

Photo by meneetuur via Flickr.

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