The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The FBI should use DNA, not posters, to solve a cold-case murder

The FBI is seeking information in the 1996 deaths of Julianne “Julie” Williams (left) and Laura “Lollie” Winans in Shenandoah National Park. (FBI)
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Deirdre M. Enright is the founder and director of the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law.

This month, FBI “seeking information” posters about the 1996 double murder of Julianne “Julie” Williams and Laura “Lollie” Winans in Shenandoah National Park began to appear at bus stops in D.C., marking the 25th anniversary of the unsolved murders. The FBI released similar fliers in 2016 on the 20th anniversary — without success. This effort is similarly futile, and it overlooks the obvious forensic avenues that could solve this case.

As the founder and director of the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, I am no stranger to uncovering evidence of law enforcement investigations that are negligent, ill-informed, counterintuitive and sometimes outright vindictive. The desire to “get someone” can quickly swallow the duty to find the right someone, and tunnel vision appears to sometimes be irresistible. This is precisely why the murders of Williams and Winans remain unsolved.

In April 2002, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft held a news conference to announce the indictment of Darrell Rice for the murders of Williams and Winans. I was among the lawyers and investigators who worked for years defending Rice, and I continued to defend him pro bono when it was later suggested that he was also the infamous “Route 29 Stalker.” Six years later, neither accusation turned out to be true.

On the Shenandoah case, our defense team spent years studying and investigating the thousands of pages of police reports, lab reports and witness interviews. We also conducted our own independent investigations and interviews. In time, DNA results forced the government to dismiss the charges against Rice and strongly suggested that Richard Evonitz — a known serial killer — murdered Williams and Winans.

As anniversaries of the crimes come and go, the government has staunchly refused to test the DNA for a link to Evonitz and to pursue the very real possibility that they already have the evidence needed to solve this case. DNA tests showed that hairs found in gloves at the crime scene and in the duct tape used to bind the victims were from the same source and matched Evonitz’s hairs at all but two of 650 base pairs on a mitochondrial chain. In 2004, the government called that “inconclusive.” Several labs have assured us that there are now tests available that would likely produce conclusive results. There is male DNA on one of the gags, and it isn’t Rice’s. There are lubricants in both victims, and they cannot be linked to either victim or Rice. Evonitz had many lubricants.

The obvious question in 2021 is why would the federal government so obstinately resist forensic testing in favor of posters? Perhaps it was the fact that less than three months after Ashcroft announced Rice’s indictment, Evonitz’s last victim managed to escape from his townhouse, unscrewing herself from his bondage board and running naked into a parking lot to flag down a ride to the police station. Evonitz fled, but the FBI followed him to Florida, where his car was stopped by road spikes; he shot himself as police dogs attacked. Just before he died, he called his sister and admitted that he had committed more crimes than he could remember.

Rather than investigate Evonitz at that point, the government doubled down on the theory that Rice had killed Williams, Winans and Alicia Showalter Reynolds. They interpreted Evonitz’s “more crimes” to be three people. They compared Evonitz only to the murders of three girls in Spotsylvania but never to the unsolved murders of four other women in central Virginia between 1996 and 1997, Williams and Winans being just two. Evidence from the killings of Reynolds and Anne McDaniel has never been compared to Evonitz’s DNA. For five more years, the federal government continued its bankrupt prosecution of Rice, preferring “evidence” provided by jailhouse snitches to science.

Even after the government folded, many people — me included — have begged the government to retest physical evidence associated with these cases. We asked for the result of the last DNA test conducted just before the government dismissed its case against Rice. It refused. A forensic lab in California offered to do the testing for free. Some of the victims’ families have asked for the testing against Evonitz. The government’s stoic refusal to compare Evonitz’s DNA — and its preference for posters — squares with neither logic nor science.

Before using tax dollars to put posters at bus stops in search of people who may or may not have seen something 25 years ago, why not test the forensic evidence? Just this month, Georgia tested DNA to solve a cold case more than 60 years old. Williams’s and Winans’s families and friends have waited a quarter of a century for closure that is likely sitting untouched in an evidence locker at Quantico. To refuse to test because the results might embarrass the government is criminal.