Sunday, April 26, 2009
By Bridget DiCosmo ~ Southeast Missourian
Evidence in the 1992 homicide of Angela Mischelle Lawless is currently in Holland awaiting a relatively new form of forensic analysis known as touch DNA testing, said Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter.
Walter said the testing, the same type experts say cleared JonBenet Ramsey’s family of involvement in her murder, will be used on the clothing worn by Lawless the night of her murder.
The testing works by developing a genetic profile based on skin cells lifted from the surface of an object that someone has handled, even if no substantial genetic material, such as semen or blood, is left behind.
Lawless, a 19-year-old Southeast Missouri State University student, was discovered shot to death in her car during the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 1992.
She had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and three gunshot wounds to the head, back and face with a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun.
Walter, a responding officer to the homicide, reopened the case in 2006, despite the 1994 conviction of Joshua C. Kezer for the crime.
Kezer was exonerated in February after a Cole County judge granted a motion acknowledging his wrongful conviction in the case.
In January 2008, touch DNA testing was instrumental in the exoneration of Timothy Masters, a Colorado man whose murder conviction was overturned after the new forensic evidence pointed to someone else in the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick.
Last month, Walter and Scott County Detective Branden Caid met with a multi-disciplinary panel of investigative experts in Colorado who worked on the Hettrick homicide case.
During the meeting, they used simulation techniques to narrow down the points at which Lawless’ killer or killer would have had to handle her body, thus coming into contact with her clothing, Walter said.
“Aside from wearing gloves, there’s no way someone didn’t transfer their DNA to her clothing,” Walter said.
Narrowing down the points of contact on the clothing will reduce the portions of material that need to be tested using the costly process, Walter said.
Walter said the evidence, consisting of a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and socks worn by Lawless, was sent to touch DNA experts Richard and Selma Eikelenboom of Holland instead of having it tested in state because they have the most experience using the technique.
“Why reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to?” he said.
Sending the evidence to Holland will also save time because the private lab will be able to get results within a few weeks, as opposed to waiting for potential backlogs in local labs, Walter said.
“A lot of time’s been wasted,” he said.
The lab in Holland marks the fifth forensics lab to perform testing on evidence in the case, but the first to try to lift a genetic profile from Lawless’ clothing.
A bank bag recovered from another unsolved Scott County case, the 1979 disappearance of Cheryl Ann Scherer from a Scott City service station, will also be sent to the Holland lab for touch testing, Caid said.
Although a handful of DNA samples taken from suspects and people who may have come into contact with Lawless will be sent along to Holland for comparison purposes, it’s possible none will match any genetic profile that may be gleaned from the clothing, Caid said.
In that case, the Missouri State Highway Patrol would need to enter that profile into CODIS, the national DNA database, in the hopes of getting a hit, Walter said.