By VIRGINIA BLACK firstname.lastname@example.org
South Bend Tribune
1:03 PM EDT, August 18, 2013
Late on the night of March 5, 1988, a 10-year-old girl had fallen asleep on the couch of her Elkhart home, where she had been watching television.
Her parents were out for the evening, and her older brother had gone to bed.
The girl would later tell police that she woke to the sound of a loud crash: A stranger had broken through the front door, covered the girl’s head and took her to his waiting car. He drove her into a wooded area and raped her. He returned her to her home, where her parents found her.
Elkhart County sheriff’s detectives found biological evidence, but no one was charged, and the case grew cold.
In 2011, the now-grown victim contacted the sheriff’s department about her case. According to the Elkhart County prosecutor’s office, original DNA samples from that night were still at the Indiana State Police lab.
Last fall, prosecutors were notified that a match to the submitted samples had been found in the national FBI DNA database of felons called CODIS (for Combined DNA Index System).
In February, they learned the DNA was a scientific match for 51-year-old Robert Quinn, who was serving time in an Indiana prison on a pa-role violation charge from a 2005 Elkhart County child molestation. Department of Correction records say Quinn also served time for child molesting in 2001 and 1993.
Quinn was charged in March with the 1988 rape, child molesting and criminal confinement.
Catching repeat offenders
Similar tales are becoming more frequent, thanks to advances in collecting, storing and comparing DNA.
“It’s been helpful as a crime-fighting tool, because it’s absolutely a fact that a minority of criminals are responsible for the majority of crimes,” Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill says of the system that can link known felons with other crimes. The fact the ISP lab still had those samples is “impressive, luck — what-ever, I’ll take it.”
This case had not been on the radar at all.
“You have to applaud (the victim) to stick with it,” Hill said. “That had to be a very traumatic experience for her, and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to close this chapter for her.”
But Hill and St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak caution that a match is only a first step; a criminal case still requires more evidence than simply a match.
Especially in a decades-old crime, a jury must be convinced that a suspect was in the area then, and that sex wasn’t consensual.
For example, in three St. Joseph County cases instigated by CODIS matches, two have already been tried, with mixed results:
Prosecutors have a limited time to bring charges once they’re notified of a match, Dvorak points out, and they must research what laws were in effect at the time of the incidents.
Right now in Indiana, DNA is taken and sent to the FBI database only from con-victed felons. But in 27 states — including neighboring Michigan, Illinois and Ohio — oral swabs of DNA are taken from all who are arrested.
Indiana lawmakers, who have turned down such legislation in recent years, were watching for a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that upheld the constitutionality of taking DNA from arrestees.
Dvorak said the legislative committee of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, on which he serves, has studied and supported the arrestee legislation.
A 2009 study by IUPUI and others declared a more widespread DNA collection would far outweigh the costs of implementing such a system., ultimately saving Indiana taxpayers more than $50 million a year.
“For each reported crime, Indiana taxpayers currently spend an average of $1,836 for officer response, investigation, prosecution and adjudication,” the authors wrote. “Because criminals tend to be repeat offenders, each conviction prevents an aver-age of seven to eight future crimes, yielding a potential fiscal benefit of over $13,000 per conviction.”
DNA collection is now less invasive, usually mouth cells retrieved by swab, rather than a needle drawing a blood sample.
“I’m confident that will be put into the law,” Dvorak said of arrestee DNA collection addressed in the next General Assembly session.
Meanwhile, forensic scientists at the Indiana State Po-lice laboratory in Indianapolis are poised not only to deal with a larger workload assuming the arrestee legislation is passed, they’re also anticipating more rules the FBI is preparing to impose over the next few years.
The state lab collects DNA evidence from felons all over the state and uploads it — 300 to 400 offender samples — weekly into CODIS, said Paul Meisner, biology section commander and former CODIS state administrator.
There, Indiana’s samples are compared with samples from other states.
Meisner recalls that when he started working at the Fort Wayne lab in 1985 and then transferred to the Indianapolis lab in 1991, they were storing samples from crime scenes submitted by agencies all over the state, but sophisticated DNA technology didn’t emerge until 1994.
DNA collection began with only violent offenders and increased to all felons in 2005. On the day last month a Tribune reporter and photographer were visiting, a lab employee had just uploaded a sample from Offender No. 119,000.
"We've come a long way since then, because we were only looking at a few (DNA) markers, and those weren't very discriminating, either, discriminating in the sense that you couldn't discriminate between people very well," Meisner says. "Now, when we run a test, we're running 16 different DNA markers, one of which is sex-determinate. If you get a full profile on all 16 markers, you essentially have the ability to identify someone."
The FBI is working with companies to develop tests that compare even more DNA "markers" — possibly more than 20 — both to further differentiate between a growing number of suspects and to include testing that other countries use.
Warming up cold cases
DNA, dried and otherwise properly cared for, can last for thousands of years. Consider recent news reports of DNA used from woolly mammoths and mummies, Meisner points out.
At the same time, the amount of biologic evidence needed to compare DNA is now minuscule. A sample of cells needed can't even be seen by the naked eye; scientists can often ID a suspect by a few cells from a cigarette butt, a pop can or a pulled-off ski mask, for instance.
"We've had cases where the guy makes the victim shower and all this stuff, covering up his DNA. In one of those scenarios, as I recall, the guy made the victim shower, and he was actually even washing the sheets and making her do the laundry. In the meantime, he goes over to the freezer and gets a beer or a pop and drinks it, leaves his DNA profile on the container," Meisner says, and laughs. "That doesn't prove the person was raped, but it puts the guy in the house."
Most of the CODIS matches, Meisner says, are for property crimes.
Many revived cold cases come from an investigator asking the lab to test evidence from an old case. But what seems like a recent run on local hits — and now charges — from decades-old crimes might be attributable to a recent initiative.
ISP Lab Manager Scott Owens says in the last couple of summers, interns have plumbed through old samples and contacted the agencies that submitted them.
The intern would ask, "Hey, if we run this and there's a match, would you reinvestigate?"
"There might be ways — and DNA's one of the big ones, but not just DNA — there may be a means of solving a case that wasn't solvable 20 or 25 years ago," Meisner says. "Everyone knows DNA's an effective crime-fighting tool. Detectives know it, and of course citizens know it because they watch TV."