Murder Victims’ Relative Seeks Wider State DNA Database
Nearly a quarter-century after his brother and sister-in-law were murdered in their Laguna Niguel home, Bruce Harrington is spearheading an effort to use DNA to find the killer and to solve hundreds of other cold cases throughout California.
Harrington is the force behind a proposed voter initiative that would expand California’s DNA database to include every convicted felon in the state. The initiative would also allow local agencies to collect DNA evidence from people arrested on suspicion of murder and rape, and beginning in 2009, from anyone arrested on suspicion of committing a felony.
“What’s driving me is a sense of wanting to avenge the death of my brother and his wife,” said Harrington, a Newport Beach real estate developer. “I believe that DNA technology is the last practical hope of resolving the who and why of [their] deaths.”
Although detectives used DNA evidence to link the deaths of newlyweds Keith and Patty Harrington to four other Orange County slayings, they have been unable to solve the case. They suspect that the perpetrator is either in prison or dead.
Prosecutors say an expanded database would help catch criminals, solve cold cases and exonerate the innocent. A bill with similar provisions failed in the state Legislature earlier this year, amid concerns over its cost and impact on civil liberties.
“This is the new fingerprint identification system,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said. “The science is there. We just have to capture it and optimize our use of it. We know that this is the way to go.”
But critics say that expanding the database would invade inmates’ privacy rights and allow the state to violate the U.S. Constitution by gathering evidence without suspicion that targets have committed a crime.
“We have serious concerns about expanding a system that was tailored for forensic purposes on serious violent felons to one that now would gather personal genetic information on low-level felons,” said Francisco Lobaco, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Sacramento.
Keith Harrington, a UC Irvine medical student, and Patty, a pediatric nurse, were in their bed when an intruder entered their home through an unlocked door on Aug. 19, 1980. The assailant raped Patty and bludgeoned them to death.
For many years, the victims’ families offered rewards and held news conferences, trying to drum up any information about the killer. But Bruce Harrington said that he had become resigned to the case’s never being solved.
That changed in 2000, when Orange County sheriff’s investigators announced that they had linked the Harrington case to four other unsolved murders in the area from the 1980s. Detectives dubbed the unknown killer the “original night stalker.” They also linked the perpetrator’s DNA to dozens of sexual assaults throughout the state, and suspect that he killed four others in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
“Up until then, it was a random killing,” he said. “Now we know there is a common link. We are going to mine the population DNA of prison inmates. Through that mining effort, we are hopefully going to bring closure to who is the original night stalker.”
The state’s database contains more than 200,000 DNA samples from offenders convicted of any of 36 serious and violent felonies, including murder, manslaughter, rape and sexual assault. It was expanded in 2002 to include first-degree residential burglary, first-degree robbery, carjacking and arson.
An all-felon database would include more than 1 million samples. Law enforcement officials say it would lead to more cold hits, which occur when DNA from an unsolved crime scene matches a DNA profile from evidence in another case, or an offender’s DNA profile in the database.
The number of cold hits has increased dramatically since the creation of the state’s databank in 1994, according to the attorney general’s office. There were 11 cold hits in 2000, 52 in 2001 and 148 in 2002. This year, an average of one cold hit a day has been recorded from among the DNA evidence backlog of over 13,000 unsolved rape cases statewide.
“If we’re really going to do something about trying to deal with the backlog,” said Dave LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys’ Assn., “we’ve got to have a crime-fighting tool that is accurate and complete.”
LaBahn said he expected the proposed initiative to succeed where the legislation had failed because the public understands that DNA is reliable and crucial evidence in criminal cases. The initiative was drafted by a coalition, including Harrington; LaBahn; L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Kahn; and the state Department of Justice.
The state attorney general’s office received the draft on Dec. 9 and backers expect to begin collecting signatures next year. They must collect 373,816 valid signatures by April 2004 to get the proposed initiative on the November ballot, but they plan to collect more than 500,000, said Mitch Zak, who is coordinating the campaign. Harrington plans to fund the effort, which is expected to cost more than $1 million.
“We have the technology in California, and we are not using it,” Harrington said. “My goal is to put my money where my mouth is and get the voters to pass the initiative.”
Backers cite as a model the database in Virginia, where data show that 82% of rape and murder hits would have been missed had the databank been limited to violent offenses. The data also show that 35% of the violent crimes solved were committed by individuals with previous property crime convictions, Kahn said.
The initiative would be funded by charging convicted felons an additional 10% in fines, which would raise about $25 million annually. In the first and second years, 70% of the funds would go to the state treasury so the attorney general’s office could build the infrastructure necessary to do the increased number of samples, and 30% would go to local agencies. The third year, the funds would be split evenly between state and local agencies. After that, the state would get a quarter of the annual funds.
The success of an all-felon databank depends on local agencies’ commitment to testing the samples in unsolved cases and making their way through their backlogs, said Kahn, who is in charge of forensics services for Los Angeles County. Thousands of rape kits and crime scene samples currently sit in freezers throughout California.
“California will have the biggest DNA databank in the country,” Kahn said. “But unless local law enforcement is willing to devote the resources to testing, then the databank will have been for nothing.”
Kahn said roughly 40 states have databases with all convicted felons.
“Enough is enough,” Kahn said. “DNA databasing is a 21st century crime-solving tool. We cannot be the last state in this nation to have an all-felon database.”