Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Obscure Streetwalker Strangler

DNA Solution

As Gilyard shuffled off into the obscurity of the Missouri prison system, a few relatives of his victims spoke to the press outside the courthouse. One called the conviction "a gift I thought we would never receive." Her gratitude is understandable, but it also indicates that the loved ones of murdered prostitutes have low expectations for justice.

Lorenzo Gilyard
Lorenzo Gilyard

But should justice be so elusive in these cases, in this era of DNA evidence?

Someone in the Kansas City Police Department made a curious decision a few years by authorizing a publicity photo featuring members of its newly created cold case squad. In the photo, posted on the police website, the seven men are pictured wearing "Untouchable"-era fedoras while posed in a cooler amid blocks of ice.

Kansas City Cold Case Squad
Kansas City Cold Case Squad

It may be true that some cold cases are solved with dogged work by clever detectives.  But a more apt cold case publicity photo might show a lab tech using the "rif-lip" technique (from "restriction fragment length polymorphism") to compare DNA molecules.

Sample of Lab Results Using Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Technique.
Sample of Lab Results Using Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Technique.

That is how the Gilyard case was solvedafter languishing in detective bureau purgatory for decades. Similarly, DNA testing on old evidence brought Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, to justice in 2003, 21 years and countless detective hours after his spree began.

At last count, biological evidence in more than 500,000 violent cold case crimes was awaiting DNA testing in the United States. The total includes more than 50,000 homicides and 170,000 sexual assaults.

For the past decade, the federal government has spent an ever-increasing amount each year to fund DNA testing. In 2006, $18.5 million was earmarked for the tests, including on both "no suspect" cold cases and on convicted felons for evidence comparisons.

Local law enforcement agencies can apply for federal DNA grants of up to $500,000 to fund the type of lab overtime work that nailed Gilyard.

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