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Notes From the Field: Expanding the DNA Database to Solve Cold Cases

Notes From the Field
Date Published
November 12, 2019

In 1986, 13-year-old Jennifer Bastian and 12-year-old Michella Welch were abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered in Tacoma parks.

As a child growing up in Tacoma that year, I remember how the tragic killings affected the community. You had to think twice about where you rode your bike or the path you followed to get to school. 

For decades, these crimes went unsolved. Due to the similarities in the two cases, and the fact that the girls had been killed less than five months apart, detectives long believed one person was responsible for both murders.

But it wasn’t until 2013, after 27 years of detective work, that our cold case unit was able to test DNA evidence recovered from Jennifer Bastian’s crime scene and found that it didn’t match the DNA from the Welch case. Even more troubling—neither DNA profile matched anyone in CODIS.

In May 2018, a suspect was arrested and charged with the murder of Jennifer Bastian, thanks to DNA, a little help from a genetic genealogist, and good old-fashioned police work.  That suspect has since pleaded guilty and is now serving 26 ½ years in prison. A suspect in Michella’s death is currently awaiting trial.   

The Bastian and Welch cases were the inspiration for a new law, called Jennifer and Michella Law (HB 1326), which strengthened Washington’s DNA law by closing loopholes in the system.

The Long Road to a New Law

In high school, I read a book about Ted Bundy, the serial killer who murdered at least 30 women and girls in the 1970s, and possibly even earlier. I decided that I wanted to solve crimes and take bad guys like Bundy off the street. After six years as a patrol officer, I became a detective. I served as a detective for 14 years, handling criminal investigations. The majority of my work focused on violent crimes, including sexual crimes and homicides. 

Among the cold cases I handled were the killings of Michella and Jennifer.

While working to solve their murders, issues related to the collection of DNA samples from  persons who are convicted of a crime and submission to the DNA database were paramount. 

First, there were loopholes in the state’s laws governing the DNA database. These obstacles prevented law enforcement from collecting DNA samples from some persons who have been convicted of violent offenses. This hampered our work greatly. For example, some persons who were convicted of a crime in Washington who died in prison never had their DNA collected, no matter how heinous their crimes, even if they were serial rapists whose DNA might link them to unsolved sexual crimes. Worse, even if they were deceased, and I could track down a sample of their DNA from autopsies, the DNA could not be uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), based on the way the DNA collection law was written.  

That was a shock to me. This was crazy. While looking into one cold case, I discovered that Ted Bundy’s DNA was not in CODIS. I was able to work with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to locate a sample of Bundy’s DNA. In 2011, it was finally uploaded into CODIS.  

Few people understand the rules of the CODIS database. CODIS is the national DNA database created and maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI makes and enforces the CODIS rules, but each state has its own set of DNA collection laws.

Some states collect DNA from a suspect upon felony arrest. But Washington State does not. Some states don’t allow for retroactive DNA collection—that is, collecting a DNA sample from incarcerated individuals who were convicted prior to their state’s DNA law taking effect. Municipal codes also come into play with DNA. The city of Seattle has been collecting DNA samples for certain misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor convictions, but couldn’t enter those samples into CODIS because the state law recognized only the state criminal code, not the municipal codes used by individual cities in the state. Jennifer and Michella’s Law has changed this.  

The importance of populating the DNA database is critical to solving cold cases. If a suspect’s DNA is not in the database, there can be no match to DNA from a sexual assault kit, or from a crime scene that has been uploaded into CODIS. 

Populating the Database

I went to work for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office in 2018 after the office was awarded a $3 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. In 2019, we applied for and received additional grant funding from BJA to work on collecting lawfully owed DNA from individuals in Washington who were convicted of a qualifying offense, but never had their DNA collected for entry into CODIS. We know there are thousands of people in Washington who’ve been convicted of a felony since the first DNA collection law took effect in 1990, but their DNA is not in CODIS. There could be several reasons for this. If a sample wasn’t collected properly, it couldn’t be uploaded to the database. Many individuals were released from jail or prison without having a sample collected. Others died in prison without having their DNA collected.

Jennifer and Michella’s Law changed several aspects of DNA collection. First, it expanded the crime of refusal to provide DNA to include anyone required to provide a DNA sample, not just those required to register as an individual who had committed a sex or kidnap offense. Second, it expands the number of crimes for which DNA could be collected, adding the crime of indecent exposure to the list of DNA-eligible offenses, with samples to be submitted to both the state and national DNA databases. Indecent exposure is a common offense committed by those who commit sexual offenses, and is often a gateway crime to more violent sexual crimes. The law allows DNA from deceased persons who were convicted of violent offenses, regardless of conviction date, to be entered into CODIS. Finally, the law allows for equivalent municipal codes to qualify as state crimes for DNA collection purposes.

It’s a pretty robust law. 

It took us four years of hearings, testimony, setbacks followed by renewed advocacy with the victims’ families, and strong leadership by the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Brad Klippert, Rep. Roger Goodman, and Rep. Tina Orwall, before the state legislature sent Jennifer and Michella’s Law to the governor to sign, in May 2019.

Recommendations to Others

If you’re looking to pass similar legislation in your state, my recommendation would be to identify the gaps in your current DNA laws, then make friends with a legislator willing to work on a bill with you. You also need strong examples of individuals committing crimes who slipped through the cracks, and cases that might have been solved earlier with your proposed law in place, or crimes that might have been prevented. Lastly, I would suggest working closely with a victim or family member of a victim impacted by the DNA law who would be willing to share their story in front of the legislature.

I think a separate cold case unit is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, the older cases will continue to collect dust. You can’t tell detectives to work on a case in their spare time. They have no spare time.

Ideally, the unit would have at least two investigators. It’s difficult to work a cold case alone. You need another set of eyes and another person to conduct interviews and fieldwork. Cold cases are hard to work on.

At the Attorney General’s office, we host cold case reviews for agencies to help review their unsolved homicide cases. We meet with other professionals in the field, to get some new perspectives and ideas about to proceed. I think the key to working cold cases is to collaborate with other professionals in the field and ask for help. It’s nice to know who else is working in your region.

I started a cold case working group in Washington in 2017. There are about 50 of us—detectives, prosecutors, forensic scientists. We come together, brainstorm, talk about issues, and do case reviews. It’s beneficial just to have connections and know who to reach out to when you need help. We meet in person for case reviews and training. There is also an e-mail group, where people can ask questions.

About “Notes from the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: November 12, 2019