The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For nearly 50 years, Harvard was haunted by an unsolved murder. DNA now points to a serial rapist.

A photo of Michael Sumpter, taken in June 1968, six months before the murder of Jane Britton. (Middlesex County District Attorney's Office) ((Middlesex District Attorney Office))

It is a winter-swept afternoon in January 1969, the thermometer dangling in the mid-30s in Cambridge, Mass. A Harvard University graduate student named James Humphries hustles up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building two blocks from Harvard Square.

His friend and classmate Jane Britton was a no-show at an important exam that morning. The phone just rang and rang when he called to check in, a police report would later document. With his knocks now going unanswered at the gold-painted door leading into the $75-a-month apartment Britton shares with a pet cat and turtle, he tries the handle. It’s unlocked.

It was not like Britton to skip a test. The daughter of a Radcliffe College administrator and medieval history scholar, she graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe and dove into advanced studies in Harvard’s anthropology department. Two years into her post-grad work, the 23-year-old had recently returned from an archaeological dig in Iran. Friends would later describe her to the New York Times as an accomplished equestrian, a musician who revered Bach, and a witty woman who enjoyed the black comedy of novelist Kurt Vonnegut. A line from the author’s 1959 “The Sirens of Titan” was her favorite quotation: “I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Humphries steps into the apartment, the walls swirling with pictures of elephants and giraffes Britton painted herself, the air spiked with the smell of the three packs of French cigarettes she smoked each day. He finds her face down on her bed, a light blue nightgown pulled up to her bloody head. Police later determined Britton had been sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death.

Some murder investigations last decades before any real progress is made. How do police discover new evidence when all leads have been exhausted? (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

The brutal murder of a talented, young Harvard student quickly jumped into the national news, where the cloud cover of speculation and rumor made it difficult to see fact from fiction. The Harvard Square counterculture scene, the infamous Boston Strangler case, a bizarre death rite tied to Britton’s anthropological work — all were floated as possible explanations.

But with little hard evidence, the investigation foundered — until nearly 50 years later.

Last week, the Middlesex County District Attorney announced new DNA testing had conclusively linked Britton’s murder to a now-deceased convicted rapist named Michael Sumpter. Detailing the steps investigators took to defrost the cold case, the office also released a trove of original police records related to the crime.

The rise of consumer genetic tests has provided law enforcement with new tools that have the potential to break open cold cases. (Video: Daron Taylor, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

“The murder of Jane Britton has raised many questions, and piqued the interest of members of the community over the past 50 years,” District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a statement last Tuesday. “[T]oday I am confident that the mystery of who killed Jane Britton has finally been solved and this case is officially closed.”

The case highlights the power of advanced techniques to definitively shut long-unsolved cases. But these new forensic excavations also underscore how far off initial hunches or once-promising leads can be, particularly when the perpetrator is a random actor. Britton’s death was a seemingly single act of violence that now has been threaded into a serial pattern. According to Middlesex County, Sumpter has been connected with five sexual assaults, including three murders.

In her release last week, Ryan noted the investigation stalled over the years because of several “red herrings.” Each led investigators astray.

Police had few hard pieces of evidence following the discovery of Britton’s body on Jan. 7, 1969. A neighbor reported hearing someone on the fire escape outside the victim’s apartment on the night of her murder, documents state. A second witness spotted a man running near the building in the early hours of the next day.

Almost immediately investigators began to hunt for a link between the murder and the counterculture percolating around Harvard. “Beginning in 1968 the Common was transformed every warm Sunday afternoon into a bohemian free-for-all, with drum circles, bead-sellers, tranced-out dancers, and a ton of pot,” author Mo Lotman wrote in his book, “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950.”

Although some of Britton’s friends said she was a straitlaced student glued to her studies, others told reporters she had a different side.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge — the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend was quoted as saying in a New York Times article from Jan. 19, 1969. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

Another possible investigative route was presented by a ghastly coincidence.

In May 1963, Beverly Samans had been found stabbed to death in her apartment. Like Britton, she had been a 23-year-old graduate student. She also lived in the same apartment complex where Britton was killed.

A year later, Albert DeSalvo was arrested and confessed to being the Boston Strangler, the serial killer responsible for 13 murders in a two-year spree. Samans was one of his victims, DeSalvo claimed, according to the Boston Globe. But since Britton was murdered in the same building, the new killing fueled rumors the actual Boston Strangler — or a copycat — could still be at large.

The most fantastic theory of the crime sprang from the crime scene. According to police documents, Britton’s body was found sprinkled with a reddish-brown powder, an act consistent with an ancient Persian burial rite. Some speculated the murder then was tied to her school work in anthropology.

“Very few people at the time thought it was somebody random who came in and killed her,” a former colleague and neighbor told the Globe last week. “Everyone thought it was connected to the anthropology department.”

The truth turned out to be less complicated but more brutal.

According to the statement from the Middlesex County District Attorney, interest in the case from outside law enforcement helped nudge the investigation along. In 2017, the office received a number of requests to open Britton’s file to the public. A group of investigators sat down with the file to see what might be available for release. As part of the review, detectives decided to rerun physical evidence collected from the crime scene.

The Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory determined new forensic techniques could pull a Y-STR, or male-specific profile, from the DNA still in evidence. By July of this year, that profile was run through a database of known sex offenders. A match returned to Michael Sumpter.

But Sumpter died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 54, just 13 months after he was paroled from a sentence for a 1975 rape in Boston. Without further genetic testing, investigators could not conclusively link Sumpter to Britton’s murder. But investigators were able to track down the suspect’s living brother, who would have the same Y-STR. The brother provided a sample, and the DNA matched the evidence from the 1969 apartment.

Further legwork connected Sumpter to Britton’s neighborhood. Authorities determined he lived in Cambridge as a child and also had a girlfriend living in the city in the late 1960s. Two years before Britton’s murder, he worked a mile away from her apartment.

This is also not the first time science has caught up to Sumpter after his death.

In 2002, Sumpter’s DNA was linked to an unsolved 1985 rape in Boston. At the time of the crime, Sumpter had escaped from a work release program, authorities said. In 2010, his forensic evidence was matched to an unsolved 1972 rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Boston. Two years later, the same DNA connected him to a 1973 rape and murder of a 24-year-old woman.

“A half century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” the Rev. Boyd R. Britton, the victim’s brother, wrote in an email to the Globe. “The DNA evidence ‘match’ may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

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