Questions Raised on DNA Discovery Timeline

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(Host) In the past month, Vermont’s DNA database has provided critical evidence in two murder investigations. Law enforcement officials say these are clearly success stories. But questions remain why it took four years to make a match in one of the cases.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) In 1998, law enforcement got a powerful new tool to track down violent criminals. In that year, Vermont joined 48 other states and set up a database of DNA collected from violent offenders. In March, the database led police to a suspect in the assault and murder of a Burlington woman.

The database was also instrumental in the arrest last week of Howard Godfrey for the 1991 killing of Patricia Scoville. It was a bittersweet triumph for Ann and David Scoville, Patricia’s parents. They became advocates for the DNA database following their daughter’s sexual assault and murder in Stowe fourteen years ago.

Last week, Attorney General William Sorrell stood outside the Hyde Park courthouse and told reporters the parents deserve a huge amount of credit in the case.

(Sorrell) “But for their work, their diligence, their staying with it, I don’t think we’d be standing here today.”

(Dillon) The state obtained Godfrey’s DNA five years ago. So why did it take so long to link his unique genetic markers with the DNA collected from the sexual assault on Patricia Scoville? The answer lies in a backlog that developed soon after the Vermont database was established.

Kerry Sleeper is Vermont’s Public Safety Commissioner.

(Sleeper) “The legislation that was enacted allowed for the collection of the test. But unfortunately, there were no resources – and that being funding – provided to support the legislation. As a result, upon passage of the legislation, and with no infrastructure in place, there was an immediate backlog.”

(Dillon) The lack of funding meant Godfrey’s DNA sample sat on a shelf from January 2000 to September 2004, when it was sent to a private firm for analysis. His DNA profile was loaded into a national databank in February of this year. And three days later, a FBI technician made the initial match between Godfrey’s sample and the specimen collected from Scoville.

But even without the DNA database, authorities may have been able to identify Godfrey’s DNA years earlier.

According to the state police, investigators had obtained DNA from more than 100 potential suspects in the Scoville murder. The state Supreme Court in September 2000 lowered the legal threshold for the state to force a suspect to provide a DNA sample.

In 1996, Godfrey had assaulted a woman several miles from Stowe. It was a random attack that police now say bore some similarities to the Scoville killing five years earlier. Yet there is nothing in the record to show that Godfrey at that time became a suspect in the Scoville case. It’s also not clear if authorities tried to obtain his DNA earlier, either voluntarily or through a court order.

Sleeper would not comment on whether Godfrey could have been identified sooner.

(Sleeper) “Believe me, it’s a valid question. I just can’t comment on it in a pending case.”

(Dillon) Sleeper says the state is about six months away from eliminating the database backlog. He says in the past several years, the Legislature has provided the funds needed for the state forensics lab.

Senator Susan Bartlett is chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Her Lamoille County district includes Stowe. She says she found out about the backlog when she talked with the Scovilles

(Bartlett) “And they said, you know, it’s really great. But do you know, we understand, that the information is not being entered? And I then called the commissioner and said “What’s going on?” And we had a conversation. We invited them into the committee. And two years ago, we gave them some additional money and asked for a follow-up report. And last year we gave them additional money.”

(Dillon) Public Safety Commissioner Sleeper says his concern now is securing new funds for the forensic lab and the DNA program.

(Sleeper) “We’re very concerned about the elimination of certain federal grants, programs and earmarks. And those provided critical funding for the DNA purpose in our lab. And we need to start making plans very shortly to ensure that we can sustain the operation.”

(Dillon) The Scoville case was the second time in a month that the state DNA database proved crucial to a murder investigation. Burlington police used DNA evidence to charge Gerald Montgomery with killing Laura Winterbottom in Burlington on March 8.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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