On May 14, firefighters and police discovered a grisly scene when they responded to a house fire in an upscale neighborhood in a Washington, D.C. suburb. Inside the large brick home were four bodies showing signs of being bound, tortured and killed by blunt force trauma. The victims were identified as Mr. and Mrs. Savopolous, their 10 year old son, and their housekeeper. Mr. Savopolous is the CEO and President of American Iron Works, and he and his wife were active in social and charity circles in the Washington D.C. area. Their home is worth over 3 million dollars, and is not far from the home of Vice-President Joe Biden.
It was readily apparent that Savopolous’ wealth notwithstanding, the crime was not a random robbery-homicide. From the outset there appeared to be a connection between the perpetrator(s) and the victims. When a half-eaten discarded pizza was discovered and tested for DNA, the connection was revealed: the DNA matched that of Daron Wint, a former employee at American Iron Works. Wint has a long criminal record that includes convictions for assault and restraining orders issued against him. He was apprehended in Northeast D.C. on May 21, a week after the murders.
CHALLENGING DNA EVIDENCE
Wint was identified as a suspect in what is known as a random-match identification; police investigators find a crime-scene sample, process the DNA, and then search the DNA database for a match. Defendants have challenged the accuracy of random-match identifications, arguing that the process overstates the probative value of the match. While this is most likely not a successful argument regarding admissibility of DNA identification, it can be used to undermine the probative value of the identification evidence.
A random-match identification such as Wint’s highlights the need for corroborating evidence. Often prosecutors depend too heavily on DNA evidence to link the defendant to the crime, and while DNA evidence is very persuasive it rarely satisfies the burden of proof in a criminal trial on its own. Defense counsel can attack the credibility of the DNA evidence by questioning the methodology used by the lab, the possibility of contamination of the sample and or mixture (one or more people’s DNA involved in the sample), and whether there was interpretive bias or fraud in reaching the conclusion. All of these issues can undermine the credibility of DNA evidence and leave the trier of fact unable to reach a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Wint’s case, corroborating evidence of his former employment at Mr. Savopolous’ company makes the random-match not so random and bolsters the probative value of the DNA evidence. The fact that when Wint was apprehended he was in a convoy of two cars, and the car ahead of him contained $10,000 in cash, is also corroborating evidence that the DNA evidence gathered from the pizza at the crime-scene matches that of Wint. Each piece of evidence providing a connection between Wint and the victims, and tying Wint to the scene increases the credibility of the DNA evidence in the eyes of the trier of fact. Conversely, without these pieces of evidence DNA identification evidence alone would lack the probative value to satisfy the high burden of proof demanded in a criminal trial.