CHICAGO — A rich source of potential criminal suspects — a federal database with millions of DNA profiles — is going unexamined as authorities in Lake County, Ill., reopen the investigation into the 1992 rape and slaying an 11-year-old girl.
The FBI refuses to enter the DNA profile from the Holly Staker murder case into its forensic library because the lab that produced it was not accredited. Lake County or Waukegan law enforcement officials could sue suit seeking to compel a search, but local officials have given no indication they intend to do that.
FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd said, to her knowledge, no one had even requested another search. Since it was last searched for a potential suspect in the Staker case, the FBI’s DNA clearinghouse has grown from about 6.5 million profiles of offenders to about 10.4 million. But the FBI’s stance that federal law prohibits it from running the profile through the database hasn’t changed, Todd said.
Investigators are again looking into the crime after the court-ordered release of Juan Rivera, the former Waukegan man who spent nearly 20 years in prison for the killing before appeals judges reversed his conviction and freed him last month.
In a criminal case beset by doubt and characterized by legal U-turns over the decades, the powerful forensic tool could point investigators in a new direction. But it’s not being used.
“We’re talking about the murder of an 11-year-old girl, and (the FBI) may have the identity of that murderer in their database,” said Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, whose lawyers have represented Rivera. “And they’re refusing to check.”
The profile, drawn from semen found inside the victim, remains ineligible to be added permanently or even run through the FBI’s DNA database because the private California lab that worked with the evidence on behalf of Rivera’s defense team wasn’t accredited by one of the federal government’s approved agencies, Todd said.
Those who support the accreditation process say it’s necessary to ensure that private labs are using functional equipment, employing capable personnel and following best practices.
But the scientist who worked with a colleague to develop the profile, Edward Blake, angrily calls the accreditation process “artifice being substituted for something legitimate.” Though he now works for an accredited lab, Blake says the process doesn’t truly assess the trustworthiness of a lab’s work and notes that scandals and errors have plagued labs that have the certification.
“You don’t make judgments based upon a mere credential. I have credentials. They’re just not ones dictated to me by the FBI,” he said. “Juan Rivera was lucky. What about the next guy? You see how stupid this whole thing is?”
Blake noted that the quality of his lab’s work in the Staker case is not in doubt, and he accused the FBI of “obstruction of justice.” Accreditation should not determine whether a rigorously developed profile is even run through a database, he argued.
The disagreement over accreditation centers on the FBI’s National DNA Index System, known as NDIS, a database that takes in profiles contained in the federal library as well as qualifying profiles from state and local DNA databases.
During the years before the appeals court ended the court fight, Rivera’s defense lawyers had hoped to exonerate him by using DNA to reveal a link to an alternative suspect in the slaying of Holly Staker as she baby-sat two children in 1992. Rivera had confessed, but his lawyers argued that his admission, taken during a grueling series of interrogations, was false.
Faced with aging, degraded evidence, Rivera’s lawyers turned to Blake, then of Forensic Science Associates near San Francisco. He was hired because he is “unequivocally a great pioneer in the field,” Lawrence Marshall said of Rivera’s defense team.
In March 2005, Blake’s lab isolated a full DNA profile of the man who was the source of the semen.
But because the lab hadn’t submitted itself for accreditation, the FBI refused to put the profile in its database or run a one-time query called a “keyboard search,” citing federal law, according to court records. Rivera’s lawyers sued the FBI, and federal Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ordered the search in February 2009, calling the FBI’s objections “unpersuasive.”
No match was found, and months later Rivera was again found guilty of the Staker murder at his third trial in Lake County.
But in part because the DNA profile did not match Rivera himself, an Illinois appellate court late last year reversed that conviction, and Rivera, now 39, was released from prison Jan. 6.
Left with an unsolved murder case two decades old, Waukegan detectives are poring through materials and following up on “a few tips,” police Chief Daniel Greathouse said.
It remained unclear, though, whether Waukegan police or the Lake County prosecutor’s office might seek a search of the database, despite the FBI’s strong resistance. Greathouse wouldn’t say, and Waller did not return calls for comment.