Sunday, October 05, 2008

DNA may reveal Cleveland case's real rapist

Evidence that cleared man sent to FBI's database -- 14 years late!

When the young mother answered a knock at the door in the middle of the night, a man put a knife to her throat, forced his way inside and raped her while her 2-year-old son slept in the next room. It was July 29, 1990, in suburban Cleveland, and her attacker was never caught.

Worse, the wrong man was arrested and convicted. Brian Piszczek served three years of a 15-to-25-year sentence before DNA proved him not guilty and he was released in 1994. Now, DNA offers new hope of finally solving the case. Authorities soon will know whether semen recovered from the victim matches the DNA of any of the more than 6 million known criminals in a national FBI database. "That's the million-dollar question," Brook Park Police Lt. James Foster said.

Getting to this point has been a roundabout journey, highlighting both the exciting possibilities and common frustrations of DNA testing in Ohio. The ability and willingness of law enforcement to follow up on their mistakes, and catch the right guy after a wrongful conviction, is about to be tested again. Robert McClendon of Columbus was released from prison in August after serving 18 years for a child rape that a recent DNA test showed he didn't commit. Officials have reopened the investigation of that rape, but Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said the victim is not cooperating. Of 221 DNA exonerations nationally, about 40 percent exposed the real attacker.

DNA tests that cleared inmates and identified the actual criminals show that the attackers committed dozens of rapes, murders and other violent crimes while the wrong people were in prison, according to the Innocence Project of New York. The nonprofit legal clinic, founded in 1992, uses DNA to free innocent inmates.

The Dispatch, as part of its continuing investigation of the missed opportunities of inmate DNA testing, revisited Piszczek's story in May and requested that Cleveland law-enforcement officials enter the DNA from Piszczek's wrongful conviction into a national DNA database of convicts. At the time, Piszczek was one of six men convicted of rape or murder in Ohio who later were cleared by DNA, and his was the only exoneration that didn't point to the real attacker or at least a new suspect. The FBI began expanding an experimental DNA database nationally the same year Piszczek was cleared and released from prison, but nobody had ever followed up on the case.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, who wasn't prosecutor at the time, said he was open to the suggestion of now checking the database but that the semen samples collected from the rape victim had long since been thrown away. The Dispatch contacted Forensic Science Associates, a private lab in Richmond, Calif., that tested the evidence that cleared Piszczek in 1994. The lab, it turned out, had saved the DNA it collected from the semen samples. Government evidence handlers in states such as Ohio frequently throw away such samples, in part because they don't have evidence preservation laws.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor and the Brook Park Police Department hired Forensic Science Associates to analyze the sample again to obtain a new database-compatible DNA profile. Analyst Edward T. Blake reported the rapist's unique genetic fingerprint to Brook Park Police on Sept. 2.

There will be at least one further delay. Although Blake is a nationally recognized expert who helped pioneer forensic DNA testing two decades ago, the California lab where he works hasn't undergone Ohio's certification process. So Blake's 80-page report was forwarded to the state lab Sept. 26, along with the actual samples, for retesting and verification before the results will be submitted to the database.....

More here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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