Tactical Triumph New to U.S., 'Touch DNA' Also Exonerated Masters
DENVER — The DNA-testing technology used by Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy to exonerate the Ramsey family in the death of JonBenet Ramsey was the same kind authorities used to free Tim Masters in a case that made headlines earlier this year.
"Touch DNA" – the kind left behind by fingers instead of the typical sources, including blood and semen – is at the center of both cases, said Linda Wheeler-Holloway, a former Colorado Bureau of Investigation official who worked for years to help Masters overturn his conviction.
The technology, new to the United States, though well-established in Europe, allows investigators to recover DNA from skin cells left behind on a victim.
"It's proven (technology) because it's DNA – we carry the same DNA in all of our cells," Wheeler-Holloway said. "It's just harder to detect because it's fragile and falls off, unlike blood that's soaked into the clothing or semen that makes a stain."
In another similarity to the Masters case, the skin-cell DNA was recovered from the area of JonBenet's waistband.
In the case of the victim in the Masters case, Peggy Hettrick, it was from the waistband of her underpants. In JonBenet's case, it was around the waistband of her long johns – an area someone would pull on in both cases.
Hettrick, 37, was stabbed in the back and sexually mutilated in 1987. Her killer left her in a field in Fort Collins with her pants pulled down and her shirt pushed up.
Masters was released this year after 91/2 years in prison, when investigators determined another man's skin-cell DNA was found in the cuff of Hettrick's blouse and the inside of her panties – places the killer might have touched.
The private company conducting the sampling in the JonBenet case was The Bode Technology Group, of Lorton, Va. The company has been extracting and analyzing DNA from fingerprints for the past year, said Angela Williamson, Bode's director of forensic casework.
Lacy chose the firm after consultations with several law enforcement agencies, including the Boulder Police Department, a district attorney's news release said.
The way the DNA is collected is critical, Williamson said. Techniques include swabbing, lifting with tape and scraping.
"We had a discussion with the detectives, and they believed the suspect would have touched the outer garments and the undergarments," she said.
Previous tests had already determined an unidentified male left DNA evidence in JonBenet's underwear. Bode scientists scraped the area on JonBenet's leggings where someone would have placed their hands to pull them down, Williamson said.
"We did get a DNA profile," she said. "What we got is DNA that matched the undergarments."
In the past 10 years, Bode has analyzed more than 300,000 convicted offender samples from 13 states and more than 40,000 forensic case samples, according to its Web site. It also analyzed more than 25,000 DNA samples from the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 and American Airlines Flight 587 aircraft disasters and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Wheeler-Holloway said the DNA evidence in the Ramsey case is strong in exonerating the Ramseys.
"If they're finding the same DNA pattern in more than one place on the clothing of JonBenet, it's extremely significant in pointing toward the perpetrators," she said. "It is significant evidence (the Ramseys) weren't involved in the murder of their child."
Evidence in JonBenet Ramsey case
JonBenet Ramsey's body was found in the basement of her parent's Boulder home on Dec. 26, 1996. She had been sexually assaulted, her skull was fractured and she died of asphyxiation. Traces of blood and semen were found at the murder site and on the child's body and clothing, and footprints were analyzed in the basement and outside the home. In addition, a ransom note was found, giving investigators a handwriting sample.
* Fluids: Cells in blood, semen, saliva, mucous and other bodily fluids contain DNA, which can be analyzed to create genetic profiles. Each person's genetic profile is slightly different.
The Ramsey case: Blood samples have been taken from John and Patsy Ramsey; John's son, John Andrew Ramsey; John's daughter, Melinda Ramsey; friends and others close to the family. No matches were found. The latest evidence is a new test of so-called "touch" DNA, which also didn't match any member of the Ramsey family.
* Hair: Hair follicles are distinctive under a microscope. Identifications are made by comparing hair from the crime scene with hundreds of other hair samples taken from potential suspects and files of reference samples from a variety of people. It also can yield DNA information.
The Ramsey case: Hair samples have been taken from John and Patsy Ramsey; their son, Burke; John's son, John Andrew; John's daughter, Melinda; and other relatives and friends.
* Fibers: Fibers from blankets, carpet, clothing, bedding, car interiors and other woven materials can be identified and traced. A dark fiber was found on the child's underwear.
Ramsey case: Fibers could be analyzed from a variety of sources, including JonBenet's body, her sleepwear, the blanket covering her body, her bedding, the carpet samples police removed from the Ramsey home and the interiors of the Ramseys' cars.
* Handwriting: Experts analyze the shape of letters, angle of writing and other aspects of a handwriting sample connected to the crime scene. They compare the writing with samples collected from potential suspects.
Ramsey case: Handwriting samples have been taken from John and Patsy Ramsey; their son, Burke; John's son, John Andrew; John's daughter, Melinda; friends; and employees of Access Graphics and their spouses. They were asked to write certain words from the ransom note in the same block lettering it featured. The note contains misspellings and conflicting writing styles that police believe were deliberate.
* Fingerprints: No two people have the same fingerprint patterns.
Ramsey case: Fingerprints are believed to have been taken from Ramsey family members and other close acquaintances. Fingerprints could have been lifted from JonBenet's sleepwear, the stick with a cord used to strangle her, the notepad used to write the ransom note, the ransom note itself, a second "practice" note, the door in the basement room where JonBenet's body was found, the interior and exterior of windows and doors in the house and pens recovered from the home that could have been used to write a note.
* Footprints: Shoeprints can be specific, depending on the rarity of the brand, characteristics of the owner's footwear or a bare footprint.
Ramsey case: It's likely that some family member's shoes were taken for examination and comparison to any footprints or impressions that were found. Police photographed footprints in the snow in the yard of the Ramsey home. Footprints or rough impressions also may be evident in the sections of carpet police removed from the Ramsey home.