Killer, Caught by New Technique, Gets Life Term
In what is believed to be the first case of its kind, a defendant was sentenced to life in prison Friday after the police used a scientific technique called “genetic fingerprinting” to identify him as a killer-rapist.
A High Court judge in Leicester, 100 miles north of London, sentenced Colin Pitchfork to prison for raping and murdering two teen-aged girls. It was the culmination of one of the most unusual homicide investigations ever.
Pitchfork, a Leicester baker, was charged with the slayings last September after forensic scientists matched the genetic structure of his blood and saliva with semen samples taken from the scene of the two crimes.
He later admitted raping and killing the two 15-year-old girls, and on Friday, he pleaded guilty.
On the basis of the laboratory work, the police released a 17-year-old youth who had been charged with the killings.
“This process not only led to the apprehension of the correct murderer, but also ensured that suspicion was removed from an innocent man,” the presiding judge, Philip Otton, said Friday in court.
Elements of the genetic structure of blood, saliva and semen are said to be as individually distinctive as fingerprints. The odds against two persons having identical patterns are about 30 billion to one, according to Leicester University geneticist Alec Jeffreys, who developed the test technique used in the investigation.
Genetic fingerprinting has been used by the British Home Office in immigration cases in which proof of parent-child relationships is required, but it had never been used in connection with a major crime.
Blood, Saliva Samples
By using the technique, forensic experts were able to conclude that the same person had killed both girls, even though 2 1/2 years separated the crimes. According to Jeffreys, tests can be conducted effectively on dried blood samples up to five years old and on dried semen up to three years old.
Two months after the second girl was slain, in November, 1986, and with the investigation at an apparent dead end, the police decided to request blood and saliva samples from every one of the 5,000 males age 13 to 30 in the three villages near the scene of the crimes.
Although such a tactic would undoubtedly raise serious questions by civil libertarians in the United States and would probably have run into opposition in urban areas in Britain, it was largely successful in rural England, where a sense of outrage among close-knit villagers and an effective police public relations campaign created an atmosphere of virtually complete cooperation.
All but one of the 5,512 males within the target age group took part voluntarily, and the man who declined had already been ruled out as a suspect, Painter said.
Pitchfork was caught after police learned that he had persuaded a colleague at work to supply blood and saliva samples on his behalf.
A woman who overheard a barroom conversation about Pitchfork’s efforts to find someone to provide samples for him reported the incident to the police, and Pitchfork was detained. He later submitted to genetic fingerprinting and then confessed.
The man who presented himself for testing in Pitchfork’s place, Ian Kelly, 23, was given a suspended 18-month sentence.