DNA Tests Clear Man Charged in Rapes : Crime: The suspect spent four months in jail after being arrested near USC. Lawyers for both sides say there was enough evidence to convict him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man who spent more than four months in the Los Angeles County Jail after being charged with raping two college students and attempting to rape another was cleared Thursday after sophisticated DNA tests proved that he was a victim of mistaken identity.

Richard Lee Nichols, 25, was ordered released on the rape charges by Superior Court Judge Elva Soper after prosecutors informed the judge that the tests showed he could not have been the rapist. However, Nichols remains in custody because he is facing trial on an unrelated theft charge, according to his lawyer.

Had it not been for the DNA tests, which have been in use for only two years in Los Angeles County, lawyers on both sides said it is quite possible that Nichols would have been convicted of the rapes. According to prosecutor Marc Debbault, the current suspect in the case is a friend of Nichols' who used Nichols' car in one of the attacks.

"It's unfortunate," Debbault said of the time Nichols spent in jail. "But it would have been a greater tragedy if he were convicted because certainly the evidence may have been sufficient to convict him."

Said Frank Duncan, Nichols' lawyer: "He can thank his lucky stars for the DNA testing."

Nichols was arrested in October near the USC campus after police located his truck using a detailed description, including the license plate number, given by one of the rape victims. He was charged in connection with three attacks involving two students at El Camino College in the South Bay area and one USC student.

The first two incidents took place Sept. 26. Police said a 20-year-old El Camino College student was kidnaped in a car but later released. Fifteen minutes later, a 17-year-old student was kidnaped in a car and raped. The third attack occurred on Oct. 4, when the 24-year-old USC student was kidnaped and raped. All three women were abducted at gunpoint.

According to Debbault, the women later viewed photographs of possible suspects and picked Nichols out of a set of six pictures. The prosecutor said the women also identified Nichols as their assailant after viewing a live lineup.

Although the prosecutor said Nichols and the current suspect, Edward Scott, resemble one another, defense attorney Duncan said the resemblance is not that close.

Scott is in custody on charges of kidnaping and rape in connection with four crimes--some of which, Debbault said, took place while Nichols was in custody.

Nichols, meanwhile, steadfastly maintained his innocence from the time he was arrested. After initial blood typing tests showed that he could have been the assailant, his lawyer insisted on the DNA testing.

The DNA tests, also called "genetic fingerprinting," were developed in England in 1985. They rely on blood samples to identify a crime suspect's DNA patterns, and their use has been bolstered by scientific data indicating that the chance of two people having the same DNA pattern is extremely remote--perhaps one in a billion.

The Nichols case is not the first in Los Angeles County in which a defendant has been cleared based on DNA testing. In 1990, a 33-year-old Mexican immigrant was also cleared of rape charges after genetic fingerprinting showed he could not have been the culprit. Like Nichols, that man spent four months in jail awaiting trial.

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