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Baffled Police Try DNA Sweep

Town's Men Asked to Give Samples in Murder Case

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page A03

TRURO, Mass., Jan. 11 -- This sleepy speck near the tip of Cape Cod, with pristine sand dunes that teem with tourists all summer, usually keeps a low profile this time of year.

But the offseason calm was broken this week when police, struggling to solve a three-year-old murder case, began requesting DNA samples from every man in town.

A reward poster shows Christa Worthington, who was found dead in Truro, Mass., in 2002. (AP)

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"I think it's the first time my day has ever started with a guy asking me if he can have some of my DNA before I even have a cup of coffee," said Brian Donahue, 25, a carpenter, who allowed an officer to swab cells from his cheek in the parking lot of a deli called the Filling Station one recent morning. "It seems kind of crazy."

In a still-unsolved crime that shocked this community of about 2,000 year-round residents, fashion writer Christa Worthington, 46, was found stabbed to death in her home in January 2002. Her 2-year-old daughter, Ava, was unharmed at her side.

Forensics analysis found semen on Worthington, and law enforcement officials have been trying to match it ever since. Ava's father, who is married, as well as a former boyfriend of Worthington's and several other men, have been ruled out as suspects. A $25,000 reward failed to produce a breakthrough.

After consulting with FBI experts, state and local police last week began staking out winter hot spots -- stores, restaurants, the post office and the town dump -- and asked locals to voluntarily submit to the test. The two-person teams of officers flashed photographs of Ava and asked residents to provide basic information, such as their race and date of birth, and whether they knew Worthington.

About 75 men volunteered in the first day of testing, and dozens of others were tested earlier in the investigation. But several hundred men in town remain unscreened, and police have said they may extend the search to nearby communities.

Some say they complied because they believe it will help authorities narrow their search. "If it gives them one less suspect, that's fine by me," said Bruce Levenson, 69, a retiree who drove to the police station Tuesday to volunteer for a test. "I don't have anything to hide."

Others denounce the sweep as invasive and unlikely to advance the investigation. They say it shows that the police are grasping at straws.

"Is the guy who did this really going to be dumb enough to go get tested?" asked a woman working behind the counter at the Filling Station on Tuesday morning, who asked not to be named. "And who knows whether the killer even still lives here? I mean, what are they going to do next -- start knocking on doors?"

Widespread DNA dragnets are more widely used in Europe. In 1987, in the first case of its kind, Englishman Colin Pitchfork was linked to a murder of two teenage girls after police obtained DNA from about 5,000 people in three small villages. When they found two identical samples, investigators determined that Pitchfork had paid a friend to take his test.

In the United States, the Associated Press has documented 18 instances in which DNA samples were collected from a broad swath of people. The results of such strategies have varied.

In southern Louisiana, an investigation into a series of killings committed beginning in 2001 included taking DNA samples from more than 1,000 white men who drove a certain type of truck. That effort failed to turn up a suspect. Derrick Todd Lee, an African American, was ultimately arrested in May 2003 and was convicted of murder last October.

"The effectiveness of this approach is fairly limited, and it raises some concerns," said Barry C. Scheck, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardoza Law School and co-founder of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to absolve those wrongfully convicted of crimes. "Nobody should be scared or coerced into being tested, and it should be clear that the samples should only be used to eliminate suspects. Once that is done, they should be destroyed. If the state has someone's DNA, it has access to the most private information you can imagine."

In the Louisiana case, Scheck said, he has sued to compel police to destroy the DNA evidence that was collected.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts asked District Attorney Michael O'Keefe to halt the testing process in Truro. "The mass collection of DNA samples by police is a serious intrusion on personal privacy that has proven to be both ineffective and wasteful," John Reinstein, the group's legal director, wrote in a letter.

But O'Keefe said Tuesday that the testing is useful to the investigation and will proceed. "The testing has value as one of many methodologies ongoing for three years," he said. "It and other methods will continue."

Earlier in the week, law enforcement authorities told news organizations that residents refusing to be tested would draw suspicion. But O'Keefe said he recognized that people who objected to the method would opt out.

"The police are well aware that there are many legitimate reasons why some people would be unlikely to participate," he said.

In Truro, where a midweek cold snap left a layer of ice on roadside puddles, several residents who have yet to be approached by police expressed concerns.

"I hope they find the guy who did it, but I am not taking it," said Stuart Oberist, 57, stopping into the Filling Station for a cup of coffee. "It just seems like a dangerous precedent to set."

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