• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

In September 2003, Brian Burritt rode the elevator down to the basement of the San Diego Police Department where the "murder books," the binders of the department's cold cases, many decades old, are kept in cool, dry storage. The books are paper tombs, weighted with hundreds of pages -- evidence lists, crime-scene diagrams and photos, lab reports, autopsy reports, witness statements, and more. Each begins with a one-page synopsis of the crime. Over several weeks, Burritt, whose title is criminalist, checked out binders and quick-read the synopses, looking for mention of liquid evidence, typically swatches of blood or semen he might use to establish a DNA profile of a perpetrator. Most of the cases contain such testable evidence, which Burritt, the forensic lab, and the cold-case team would eventually investigate. But one case caught his eye. A murder from 1987, whose crime scene was documented by Lieutenant Dick Carey and whose thick binder signaled much physical evidence and a detailed inquiry. There were fingerprints, 11 usable "latent lifts." The majority belonged to the victim; 2 or 3 were from an unidentified person. "It took me less than two minutes," Brian Burritt told me nearly three years after his discovery, "to see the evidence I wanted to test. There's a blood trail leading from the body in the house to the stolen car -- and the blood was in the car." He read on.

The victim was William H. Thompson, an African American real estate developer, 61. Thompson had been stabbed 55 times in a bedroom of his Emerald Hills home. Not only was blood evidence retained; so, too, were the knives used in the stabbing, the victim's clothing, and liquid swabs taken from his orifices. The case had a high degree of "solvability," a bit of clunky jargon favored by detectives and district attorneys. A blood trail also meant there was a "bleeder," from which Burritt hoped he could identify DNA that might lead to the killer. Intrigued, he went to the Central Library and consulted the newspaper bank. He read that Thompson was the owner and publisher of the San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, the only black-oriented daily in the city, whose size and circulation Thompson had doubled within two years of buying the paper in 1984; he read that the victim ran W.H. Thompson and Associates, which built and managed low-income apartment units in Southeast San Diego; he read that Thompson's funeral at Calvary Baptist Church, a great wooden bowl of worship, attracted 500 people, among them San Diego's black political and business elites. The pallbearers included city councilmember William Jones and county supervisor Leon Williams. A woman sang the Negro spiritual, "Soona Will Be Done the Troubles of This World." Even the day itself was special, the newly proclaimed federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a sign not lost on Dr. W.P. Cooke, pastor emeritus of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento, who gave the eulogy. Thompson was a "great humanitarian," Cooke thundered from the Calvary pulpit, a man being honored "on the celebrated birthday of another great humanitarian, Dr. Martin Luther King, each a tragic waste, a loss to the world." "Wow," Burritt recalled thinking, "this guy was an important businessman. This would be a great case to crack." The Thompson murder book had also told Burritt that after a thorough processing of the crime scene and flatfoot inquiries, the case had gone ghostly quiet. The binder lay closed -- no witnesses, no suspects, no leads -- for 16 years.

Burritt, 37, has a widow's peak, close-clipped red hair, and a soul patch, a neat triangle of hair, under his lower lip. The UCSD grad savors long and winding explanations; he mixes testimony and fact, revealing a passion for helping families and victims find closure. His specialty is DNA-profiling -- the genetic identification of criminal perpetrators -- which, he said, is now the "keystone evidence" in thawing out these crimes. In 11 years with the forensic biology lab, Burritt has seen changes in DNA technology since 2000 that have made his job "unrecognizable" from the system it was, even in the 1990s. Though the technology is commonplace and often incontrovertible at trial, people should, he counseled, resist the claims of the CSI TV dramas (which he admits to watching) -- the idea that DNA-profiling sprouts sudden case-ending results. Bingo! as the cocky or babe TV criminalist says. Nothing in police work, he noted, is quick or foolproof.

When the cold-case unit was first formed in 1995, DNA analysis was in its infancy. We all remember O.J. Simpson's murder trial that year as the first big DNA case. Although Simpson's blood was found at the crime scene (the probability was, only 1 person in 57 billion could match his DNA), the defense successfully argued that the Los Angeles Police Department had mishandled that blood or contaminated the scene. By 2000, however, DNA profiling was the rage, the best murder-cracking tool since Sherlock Holmes's deductions. In San Diego, there are some 600 unsolved murders; a few are more than 40 years old. Initially, when Burritt and the cold-case unit took stock of this backlog, they prioritized the homicides by method and by liquid evidence: sex-related murders, then death by stabbing, strangulation, and bludgeoning. With strangled victims, Burritt said he seeks "fingernail scrapings; hopefully, the person dug in and took some flesh out." He scours the murder books for evidence of blood, semen, sweat, or saliva that might adhere to a cap, a pair of sunglasses, a condom, a beer can. The largest number of unsolved cases are firearm-related homicides. Drive-by shootings leave scant, if any, clues -- that's why they're a popular way to terrorize and kill.

By 2003, there was a standardized method for collecting and profiling DNA, which was bolstered by easily searchable and widening national databases. Managed by the FBI, CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, is the storehouse of criminal DNA profiles. There are two indices. The first is the offender index, comprising DNA profiles from nearly 3.5 million felons. The second is the forensic index, which houses, to date, 148,000 DNA profiles from unsolved cases. In the forensic index are some 1500 profiles of San Diego crimes. Every day, new DNA profiles are added to the forensic index. Every Monday, the forensic index compares all its own profiles for duplication and compares its profiles to those in the offender index. The hope is that a new forensic profile can be matched to a prisoner or an ex-prisoner.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close