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Technology Turns Up Heat on Cold Case Files

New methods catch up with old criminals. The challenge is making past come alive for juries.

March 12, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

As improved technology allows police to solve more long-dormant cases, prosecutors say they increasingly face the difficult task of persuading juries that aging defendants should be held accountable for the crimes of their youth.

Many prosecutors say the advantages of scientific and technological crime detection can be outweighed by the damage done by the passage of time: dead or forgetful witnesses, aging and sympathetic defendants, lost evidence.

The first big problem is trying people for heinous crimes who for decades have lived and raised families in peaceful anonymity.

The task in the courtroom is to acknowledge that the defendant has led an exemplary life since the alleged crime, but to insist that makes him or her no less culpable, said Lara Giese, a jury consultant.

She said prosecutors have a more difficult job trying cold cases because they must not only bring the victim to life but, in the oldest cases, re-create the atmosphere in which the crime was committed.

As time passes, the crime "does not have the same impact as when it first happened," Giese said. "I think there is initial skepticism [from jurors] about why it took so long" to bring the case to trial.

Local examples of old crimes revisited include the recent prosecution of former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson on charges of trying to bomb two police cars, and the trial of Vernon Mathis Robinson for the murder of Thora Rose, who was found dead in her apartment in Hollywood 30 years ago.

Robinson was convicted of murder. The Rose murder was one of the first Los Angeles cases to be solved with a computer-generated fingerprint match.

And in January, two 45-year-old partial fingerprints led to the arrest of Gerald F. Mason, a man from South Carolina charged with killing two El Segundo police officers in 1957.

The prints linking Mason to the murder scene were critical, but prosecutors also welcomed the testimony of an eyewitness, a police officer who identified the defendant last month from an array of half-century-old photos.

Link to 1957 Crime

Mason, 69, allegedly shot El Segundo Police Officers Milton Curtis and Richard Phillips during a traffic stop in 1957. Mason is also accused of robbing four teenagers at gunpoint in Hawthorne and raping one of them.

Authorities say the rape kit -- with its DNA evidence -- was lost. But police held onto the two partial fingerprints found on the patrol car. Deputies working for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca eventually sent the print to a national FBI database, where the match was found.

Lisa Kahn, who heads the forensic sciences section of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said missing evidence is not unusual in cold cases. "Some of the physical evidence has been lost, misplaced and disposed of," she said. "But what seems to have been kept is the fingerprint card."

For most cold cases today, police and prosecutors usually begin with well-established scientific evidence -- fingerprints, DNA -- to identify suspects. That task has become simpler as more fingerprints and DNA samples have been entered into databases and technological advances have reduced the time it takes to complete a search. The digitized federal database covering 30 states and containing 44 million fingerprints allows local authorities to search for matching prints in just two hours.

"We are solving cases through forensics [techniques] that did not exist at the times these crimes were committed," Kahn said.

Her four-lawyer office, created by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in 2001, has six pending murder or sexual assault cases -- all of them involving DNA evidence, she said.

In one of those cases, Los Angeles police last month arrested Edmond Jay Marr in the 1983 slaying of a Sherman Oaks nurse. Authorities cited evidence from tests of blood collected from a knife found in Marr's possession a month after Elaine Graham vanished near Cal State Northridge in 1983.

Increased reliance on hard-to-dispute forensic evidence enhances the prosecution's case, leaving defense attorneys to try to discredit expert witnesses and police procedures for handling the evidence. Armed with reliable science, prosecutors can depend less on the testimony of aging eyewitnesses.

Difficulty for Defense

"When you have scientific evidence, it does create difficulties for defense attorneys to attack effectively," criminal defense lawyer James E. Blatt said.

On the other hand, aging defendants may appear sympathetic to jurors, especially if they have led exemplary lives except for a single crime -- even murder -- in their youth.

That was a big worry for Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul W. Turley, who prosecuted Robinson for the murder of Thora Rose. Turley knew that the 36 fingerprints found at the crime scene provided compelling evidence against the defendant. "My biggest concern was that they were going to see this 48-year-old man in a suit and tie ... and articulate," Turley said. "And jurors would ask, 'What has he been doing for the past 30 years?' "

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