Wednesday, October 8, 2008
It’s a defense attorney’s worst nightmare when DNA from his client is found on the victim. In this article, I’ll describe four cases in which the so-called genetic fingerprint identified and helped convict murderers. In a future article, I’ll write about some of the many innocent inmates DNA has helped exonerate.
William Morrisette. On July 25, 1980, 47-year-old Dorothy White didn’t show up for work and didn’t call in sick. The Hampton, Virginia woman was always reliable so co-workers drove to her home to check on her. There they found White’s body lying on the kitchen floor. Blood seemed to be everywhere, and she was nude except for her blouse which had been pulled up above her breasts.
Investigators determined that White had been raped and stabbed repeatedly. According to a court document, the fatal injury was “a slash wound across her throat, which totally severed the trachea, the right carotid artery, [and] the jugular vein...” Police technicians extracted semen from White’s body. Cops interviewed hundreds of suspects, but the murder remained unsolved for nineteen years.
Between 1980 and 1999, a new technology came onto the stage. DNA. In 1988, Virginia had used genetic markers left on the bodies of several murder victims to convict a serial killer named Timothy Spencer. The sister-in-law of Dorothy White heard about the so-called Southside Strangler and the miracle DNA that had sent him to death row. She contacted the Hampton Police Department and asked them to take another look at the long-cold case of Dorothy White.
By this time, Virginia had created a databank that contained DNA profiles of all convicted felons in the state. The semen from White’s body was tested and entered into the system. A hit confirmed that William Wilton Morrisette had left the DNA. Morrisette had been an employee of White’s boyfriend and had done yard work for the victim. His DNA was in the databank because he’d been convicted of an “abduction and maiming” and burglary. It is believed that he used an offer to do additional yard work as a ruse to get inside the victim’s home. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder and sentenced to death.
Diego Olmos-Alcade. In the early morning, three nights before Christmas, 1997, Colorado University student Susannah Chase [pictured above] quarreled with her boyfriend. She left his house and began walking to her apartment in Boulder. She never made it. She was abducted, raped, beaten with a baseball bat, and left for dead. Semen was recovered from Chase’s body and the DNA placed in the national registry.
It took ten years, but investigators finally got a cold hit on a serial sex offender named Diego Olmos-Alcade. When he was convicted of abducting and raping a woman in Wyoming, his DNA was submitted to the national databank. Olmos-Alcade had an extensive arrest record for sexual offenses. In addition to spending seven years in a Wyoming prison, he was suspected of sexual assaults in Colorado and New Jersey.
Olmos-Alcade faces the death penalty when he is brought to trial, probably sometime next year.
Gerald Abernathy. On April 10, 1982, Wendy Stark stopped at the Hillandale Shopping Center in Rockville, Maryland. Stark, a former cheerleader and a student at the University of Maryland, planned to shop at Zayre’s department store before continuing to her job as a waitress. She was tall and blonde, just the type of victim Gerald Abernathy was searching for.
Five months earlier, Abernathy had escaped from the Prince William County Jail. He’d spent most of his life in prison for numerous sexual assaults and at least one other murder.
Abernathy kidnapped Stark at gunpoint. He drove her to a secluded area and raped her. At some point, Stark bolted out of the car and ran toward a house. She made it to the front porch and tried to open the door while Abernathy followed behind her. Once Stark reached the porch, he caught up to her and fired four slugs into her body. She died a few hours later.
The case was a mystery from the beginning. The killer had fled and, because it was a random attack, could not be identified.
In 2007, a cold case detective accidentally found a box containing a cotton swab and hair samples from the case. He submitted the evidence to the lab for testing. According to an article in the Washington Post, “investigators linked the genetic fingerprint through a nationwide database to Gerald A. Abernathy, who died of lung cancer last year at age 66 in a North Carolina prison. He had been serving a life sentence for an unrelated kidnapping and murder since 1994.”
While Abernathy escaped justice, Stark’s mother was pleased just to know the name of the killer. “I’m glad he’s dead,” she said, explaining that she wouldn’t have to “hear any terrible details of what happened to her” at a trial.
Robert Rhoades. Rhoades was a sexual predator and serial murderer who was already on California’s death row when a DNA cold hit linked him to the torture murder of 18-year-old Julie Connell. He’d previously been convicted of the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of 8-year-old Michael Lyons of Yuba City.
Julie Connell was a studious straight “A” student who attended Arroyo High School in San Leandro. On the afternoon of April 20, 1984, she was abducted from Kennedy Park in Hayward. Five days later, her body was found in an animal corral near Castro Valley. She’d been raped and her wrists tied with green twine. One of her wrists had been slashed as if the killer wanted to “bleed her out.” When that didn’t work, he cut her throat.
The case went cold and was unsolved for fourteen years. In 1998, investigators submitted foreign DNA recovered from Connell’s body to the California databank. It matched the death row inmate. At his trial, the prosecutor said, “[Rhoades] silenced the only witness to these atrocities by slitting her throat – not once, not twice, but three times. The jury took an hour to convict him and he was again sentenced to death.
In addition to Lyons and Connell, Rhoades had been convicted of sexually molesting his 4-year-old stepdaughter and kidnapping and sexually assaulting yet another victim. She survived only because she jumped out of his truck and escaped.
Robert Rhoades is currently on death row at San Quentin.
Posted by Robert A. Waters at 12:46 PM