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The letter was on expensive-looking law firm stationery, and John Athan had no reason to doubt its authenticity.
So the New Jersey construction worker did what the letter asked: He signed a form agreeing to join a lawsuit in Washington state aimed at recovering overcharges in traffic fines, and he mailed it back in March.
But the law firm was phony, created by police in Athan's hometown, Seattle. They didn't want Athan's signature, they wanted his DNA, the unique genetic code they lifted from the saliva he unwittingly provided by licking the return envelope.
The law firm's address turned out to be a mailbox police had rented. The DNA was analyzed, and it matched that from semen left at the site of a rape and murder in 1982. In May, Athan, 34, was charged with first-degree murder. He is awaiting trial.
Police across the nation increasingly are turning to such clever and, critics say, legally questionable ploys to get DNA from suspects without obtaining court orders. In the past four years, cops seeking DNA samples have created a phony dating service in Boston and have impersonated a public health worker in New York City. They have portrayed a rape counselor in Iowa City, a Taco Bell worker in Brea, Calif., and a diner at a Wendy's restaurant in Upstate New York.
Police in at least a dozen other U.S. cities and in Toronto have rummaged through garbage cans, sifted through hospital refuse and picked up cigarette butts, drinking glasses, business correspondence and even gobs of spit left by crime suspects on sidewalks.
In each instance, police had a suspect in mind but lacked enough evidence to get a court order requiring the suspect to give a DNA sample. So they simply took it, from skin cells that become stuck in saliva nearly every time the mouth or tongue touches another object. Then the police matched the genetic code in the samples to that from DNA taken from blood, semen or other evidence at the scenes of unsolved crimes.
"This isn't rocket science, just good old-fashioned police work with maybe a little extra twist," says Richard Gagnon, the lead detective in the Seattle case.
Such police efforts have led to at least two dozen arrests and eight convictions across the nation. Police who use such tactics base their actions on two well-established premises: cops are allowed to mislead and even lie to suspects, and a person gives up his privacy rights in these cases, the right to withhold his saliva when he mails an envelope or discards trash.
Police have been inspired by advances in DNA testing. TV crime shows such as A&E's Cold Case Files and CBS' popular CSI programs have increased awareness of DNA testing's potential.
The ruses and the rummaging cops have used to get DNA samples have withstood court challenges. But criticism of such practices is growing.
"This is a wide-open door to allow government to seize, not just some garbage you threw away, but your entire genetic code," says George Goltzer, a New York City lawyer. He represented a rapist/murderer who was convicted in 2000 after being linked to a crime through a DNA sample that police got from a cigarette butt.
"It's only a matter of time before courts begin to find that when it comes to grabbing your DNA, things should be different," Goltzer says.
The idea of tricking suspects into leaving DNA where it can be captured without a warrant appears to have been pioneered by Boston detectives Timothy Murray and Steve Murphy. In 1996, they were investigating a slaying at a train station. They had a DNA profile lifted from a glove and a hooded sweatshirt that were left at the scene and a list of suspects.
One, Jeffrey Bly, had just been sent to prison for carjacking. In the prison's visiting room, the detectives made small talk with Bly and offered him cigarettes. A lab technician the detectives had brought along collected the butts. DNA on them matched that from the crime. Bly was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
"I was a pre-med major ... so I knew a bit about DNA," says Murray, who now commands a Boston police district. "We figured, why not give it a shot? You've got to think outside the box sometimes."
More recent cases have been similar. In Iowa City in May, police officer Jenny Clarahan posed as a counselor at a rape victims' center and snatched a glass and fork that had been used by a volunteer whom police suspected in two rapes. The DNA matched, and the volunteer was charged.
In Brea, Calif., in 2000, police detective Susan Hanna interviewed a rape suspect over lunch at a Taco Bell.
While refilling the suspect's drink, Hanna handed the straw to a police officer who was disguised as the restaurant's cleanup man. The DNA from the straw linked the suspect to two rapes. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Defense lawyers and civil litigators also are using DNA ruses. In Phoenix in 2000, defense investigators seeking to exonerate Ray Krone from a murder conviction followed other potential suspects to bars, seeking to lift DNA from their drinking glasses.
The samples did not match any DNA left at the crime scene. But Krone was released after a neighbor's DNA was matched to the crime.
And defense lawyers are attempting to keep DNA captured during ruses from being used in court. John Muenster, Athan's attorney, has asked a judge to suppress the DNA evidence against his client because Washington state law bars non-lawyers from posing as attorneys. There has not been a ruling on the motion.
Meanwhile, police and prosecutors report that crime suspects have become more savvy about guarding their DNA.
When he was being interviewed by Jacksonville police in 2000, murder suspect Robert Denney refused to lick an envelope or drink from a water bottle he was offered. He smoked a cigarette but wouldn't give police the butt.
Police got his DNA anyway, by hiding near the restaurant where Denney, 19, worked. They collected spit that he discharged during a break. The sample matched DNA from the crime scene. Denney goes to trial in October.
-------------------- Just another spore in the wind.
i hope they have pictures of all of them spitting or whatever it was that got them busted. i know if they took my DNA from cig butt or a drink bottle i would fight it. After they already have the DNA you are caught, even if they got it in an illegal way. I mean if the cops have the evidence to bust you for 1000 pounds of grass the judge wont care that some/all of the evidence was collected wrongly. that would be like them admitting the cops in their district are crooked......
Re: Police dupe suspects into giving up DNA [Re: Seuss] #1912973 - 09/13/03 04:43 PM (14 years, 14 days ago)
where i live there was a murder that went unsolved for about 10 years. they had one suspect who they were pretty sure on, but there wasn't enough evidense to ever arrest him.
a couple years ago they took some of the blood from the scene and got its DNA. they then went to the suspect's house, pulled his trash*, and got his DNA from some cigarette butts. it matched. he's in jail now for 1st degree murder.
*people who do illegal stuff: when you place your trash out on the curb for removal, is no longer protected by the 4th amendment. cops will search it on a whim. they do it all the time.