Jury Deadlocks in Case That Relied on DNA

Michele Gehrke's cousin Dennis Dolinger, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Southeast, was brutally stabbed to death in June 1999.
Michele Gehrke's cousin Dennis Dolinger, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Southeast, was brutally stabbed to death in June 1999. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

A D.C. Superior Court jury deadlocked this week over the fate of a man accused of killing a community activist nearly seven years ago in Southeast Washington.

After deliberating for five days, the jurors told Judge Rhonda Reid Winston late Thursday afternoon that they would not be able to reach a verdict in the long-awaited trial of Raymond A. Jenkins.

The case was notable not only for the prominence of the victim, Dennis Dolinger, but for the role of DNA evidence.

Another man, who was caught allegedly using Dolinger's credit cards, was originally charged in the killing and spent several months in jail awaiting trial. But investigators believed that the killer had been wounded in the attack, and when none of the blood at the scene could be linked to the man in custody, they began looking for alternatives.

A sample of the blood was sent to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services to see whether it could be linked to anyone in the database of DNA profiles that the state collects from offenders. The sample was matched to Jenkins's profile, prosecutors said.

DNA has been used for many years to link established suspects and evidence. But this was the first time that D.C. police had scored a so-called cold hit. In a cold hit, unidentified DNA evidence is compared with a database of genetic profiles, typically from convicted criminals, in hopes of finding one that points to a suspect.

Violent, close-contact crimes, such as stabbings and rapes, often leave DNA evidence, and the killing of Dolinger on June 4, 1999, was nothing if not violent.

An activist who sat on his Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Dolinger, 51, was stabbed through his skull in a bloody attack in his Potomac Avenue SE home. Jenkins, 45, of Arlington, was arrested on an unrelated burglary charge a few weeks after Dolinger's death. He was serving a prison term when he was arrested in the murder case in January 2000.

That arrest set in motion a legal fight that would last more than six years and would lay a crucial legal foundation for use of DNA evidence in the District.

In a series of pretrial arguments, defense lawyers for Jenkins challenged the admissibility of the DNA evidence against him. They argued that that there was no scientific consensus on how to calculate the statistical significance of a cold hit and that prosecutors should therefore have to qualify the findings of the DNA analysis.

The principal prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael T. Ambrosino, countered that there was no scientific controversy and that prosecutors should not have to qualify their assertion that the rarity of Jenkins's profile among African Americans was one in 26 quintillion (26,000,000,000,000,000,000).

Winston ruled a year ago for the defense, and the U.S. attorney's office promptly appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, pushing back the trial.

After hearing arguments in October, the appeals court issued an opinion in December that overturned Winston's ruling. The judges concluded that there was no scientific controversy and that the evidence could be admitted.

With the DNA issue settled, the case finally went to trial early last month. But even with the DNA evidence, the government faced challenges -- starting with the fact that another man had originally been arrested in the case.

Jenkins's attorneys, Edward J. Ungvarsky and Brandi Harden of the D.C. Public Defender Service, attacked the case and put forth enough alternative theories to raise questions among the jurors.

After the jurors reported their deadlock Thursday, the judge declared a mistrial. A hearing was set for later this month to discuss any plans for a retrial.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company