Minute traces of DNA evidence can now be tested, helping Hennepin County investigators solve two murders, uncover three serial rapists and obtain dozens of convictions.
Suzanne Weston-Kirkegaard, a Hennepin County forensic biologist, prepared DNA reference samples used to compare to crime scene evidence at the Hennepin County Crime Lab. County investigators and prosecutors sifted through 9,300 old case files.
The 82-year-old woman was walking her dog in the alley behind her Minneapolis home in November 1996 when a stranger raped and beat her. She died 12 years later, her assailant never having been caught.
Then, in 2011, DNA tests yielded a hit. A suspect, Kevin Quinton Haynes, was arrested last summer and now awaits trial. The woman’s case is one of hundreds that Minneapolis police and Hennepin County investigators and prosecutors — armed with scientific advances that now allow the most minute traces of evidence to be tested — are pursuing with new vigor.
It’s paying off: To date, investigators believe they have solved two murders and uncovered three serial rapists as the extraordinary detective work unfolds. They have obtained 33 convictions, mostly in rape cases, and over the next year prosecutors hope to file charges in another 20 cases.
Some of the previously unsolved and languishing cases date back decades.
“A lot of these victims think we’ve forgotten about them, but we don’t forget,” said Minneapolis Police Lt. Mike Martin, who heads the sex crimes unit.
The work began in 2009, after the county received a $500,000 Department of Justice grant that allowed authorities to sift through thousands of old rape and murder case files looking for evidence they could submit for DNA testing.
Searching old evidence boxes, they found and then tested nearly 600 biological samples connected to unsolved cases, including hair, skin cells, blood and semen.
Forensic scientists obtained DNA profiles of 420 possible suspects from those samples, loaded them into the national DNA criminal database, and stepped back so investigators and prosecutors could methodically piece things together.
Most of these cases never made headlines. Some were random crimes of opportunity. In others, police had prime suspects but not enough evidence. Most involved victims on society’s fringe, said Steve Redding, senior assistant Hennepin County attorney who handled the office’s first DNA case in 1987 and oversees the cold case prosecutions.
“Many of the women who were sexually assaulted are vulnerable women,” he said. “They were on the street for mental illness, alcohol and drug problems. They were homeless.”
One crime was the 1993 slaying of a male prostitute dressed as a woman. Charges have been filed in that case, but it’s on hold as suspect Billy Daymond Bailey finishes a federal prison sentence for another offense.
In another case, prosecutors got three DNA hits for Melvin Franklin Watson, who was convicted in 2012 of raping three young women in 1993, 1997 and 1999.
“These [cases] pose huge challenges but huge rewards,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “You can’t believe how grateful victims and their families are when we solve one of these.”
The most vulnerable
But in many cold cases, Redding discovered that victims could be nearly as elusive as suspects.
After reporting the crime, they often disappeared or avoided police. When authorities could not find them, cases were shelved.
Biological evidence recovered from such victims didn’t always make it to the lab. A sample might have been deemed too small or a victim’s absence made the case a lower priority.
“Frankly, that was kind of haphazard, looking back on it,” said Redding of testing decisions. “Sometimes the efforts made were good and sometimes, frankly, they were terrible.”