October 16, 2016
Massachusetts investigators moved forward on a 24-year-old cold case in late September after a Virginia lab used DNA evidence to predict the appearance of the woman's killer.
As encouraging as that may sound — having a "face to this crime" in the words of that county prosecutor's words — the technology hasn't hit the Capital Region yet. Local district attorneys also question the test's utility.
Massachusetts resident and teacher Lisa Ziegert was 24 years old when she was murdered in 1992. She was abducted from a card shop in Agawam, Mass., where she worked in the evenings.
A store clerk reported her missing after arriving the next morning to find the store open, the lights on and Ziegert's car parked outside. The money inside the cash register, along with the victim's purse and school materials, were untouched.
Massachusetts uses DNA test to predict a cold case killer's appearance Capital Region District Attorneys weigh in on the new technology By Emily Masters Published 11:04 pm, Sunday, October 16, 2016 Massachusetts investigators moved forward on a 24-year-old cold case Wednesday after a Virginia lab used DNA evidence to predict the appearance of the woman's killer. (Hampden District Attorney's Office) Springfield, Mass. Massachusetts investigators moved forward on a 24-year-old cold case in late September after a Virginia lab used DNA evidence to predict the appearance of the woman's killer. As encouraging as that may sound — having a "face to this crime" in the words of that county prosecutor's words — the technology hasn't hit the Capital Region yet. Local district attorneys also question the test's utility. Massachusetts resident and teacher Lisa Ziegert was 24 years old when she was murdered in 1992. She was abducted from a card shop in Agawam, Mass., where she worked in the evenings. A store clerk reported her missing after arriving the next morning to find the store open, the lights on and Ziegert's car parked outside. The money inside the cash register, along with the victim's purse and school materials, were untouched. Four days later Ziegert's body was found in the woods four miles away and police ruled her death a homicide. The new images predict what her killer may look like: fair-skinned with brown or black hair and brown or hazel eyes, all previously unknown traits. "The technology we have put to use is at the leading edge of the industry. No expense, effort, or means will be spared to bring the person(s) to justice who killed Lisa," Hampden County District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni said.
He authorized evidence recovered from the crime scene and Ziegert's remains to be analyzed by Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology firm specializing in DNA phenotyping.
The process tries to predict physical appearance and ancestry using unidentified DNA evidence. The lab can predict traits such as eye color, hair color, skin tone and freckles.
The composite of the traits shows the suspect at age 25 with an average body mass index, two values that cannot be determined from DNA.
"Although a first in Massachusetts, federal and local law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions have used Parabon's 'Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service' to narrow suspect lists and generate leads in criminal investigations," the Hampden County District Attorney's office said in a press release.
The Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Washington County district attorney's offices said they don't currently have policies on using DNA phenotyping as an investigation tool. Area prosecutors were hesitant to say if they'd employ the new technology in the future.
"We would take it case-by-case basis as we do with all specialized cases in our office," Rensselaer County District Attorney's Office spokesman Jonathan Desso said.
Washington County District Attorney Anthony Gordon said any new technology for DNA testing is worth learning more about. "It's basically that we have this evidence and we don't know what it means," Gordon said.
All four of the district attorney's offices said they would need to research the technology further. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said he wasn't sure it would be permissible in court.
"It's not going to be a substitute for the proof of guilt. It would be like getting a tip from somebody and that alone isn't going to get you a case," Carney said.
Since DNA phenotyping gives investigators a baseline description of a suspect, it could help investigators eliminate suspects or revisit old leads in search of new evidence. But the vague description of a white man with brown hair and brown eyes may not do much else, Carney and Gordon said.
"There is a difference between using it as an investigative tool and using it to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," Gordon said. He said though myriad allowable investigative tactics are not permissible in court, including historical profiling techniques used in serial murder, arson and rape cases.
"I don't think a jury could convict nor should they" based on a DNA phenotyping report, Carney said. "It's probably not even enough to get a search warrant."
Carney's office spent more than $70,000 last year on specialized DNA tests performed by a private company for three separate trials — two murders and a pistol-whipping assault — that all resulted in convictions. One of those murder cases represented the first time computer-assisted technology TrueAllele had been used in a New York court. Permitted as evidence by the judge, the test did help establish guilt.
On March 20, 2015, a Schenectady County jury found 48-year-old John Wakefield guilty of first-degree murder in the April 11, 2010, strangling of Brett Wentworth. Wakefield was sentenced to life in prison.
The prosecution's star witness, Dr. Mark Perlin, and his new technology — Cybergenetics TrueAllele Casework — were critical for Assistant District Attorney Peter Willis because the science showed Wakefield's DNA was found on the victim's forearm, shirt collar and the murder weapon, a guitar amplifier cord.
State Police forensic officers found multiple people's DNA on those pieces of evidence, Carney said. Finding a match on DNA evidence that is not single source is a common challenge on crime scenes, he said. "A lot of DNA deposited at a crime scene is mixed DNA."
TrueAllele analyzes the mixed-source DNA and computes "the likelihood of a particular person's DNA being in that mixture," Carney said.
While a traditional DNA test showed there was a one in 400 possibility that the killer's DNA didn't match what was found on the victim, the new technology told investigators there was a one in 1 billion chance it wasn't his.
Wakefield's defense attorney, Fred Rench, called Perlin's science "voodoo" for months but quickly abandoned that strategy when Perlin gave testimony on the tests' legitimacy.
Carney said he felt the price of the tests were well worth the convictions. His office went to a private firm because a State Police forensic lab scandal impeded the aim of getting state-funded testing done in time. Schenectady County financed the tests with forfeited criminal funds, Carney said.
Gordon said his office exclusively sends its evidence to the State Police lab, which is funded by taxes and does not charge law enforcement agencies for testing DNA or testifying on the findings in court.
"That's why the decision to have a State Police lab is so valuable," Gordon said. "We have not had cause to send evidence to outside labs."
Gordon said the New York State District Attorney's Association does its best to be at the forefront of investigation tools, including DNA testing.
"Competent, qualified science helps exonerate innocent people and helps prove guilty" those who have committed a crime, Gordon said. "There's a lot of developing science and with developing science, there's debate."