FBI Ordered to Do DNA Search to Help Suspect in Rape-Murder Case

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In what the U.S. Department of Justice describes as an unprecedented ruling, a federal judge in Chicago yesterday ordered the FBI to search its massive national DNA database to see whether it can identify a new suspect in the rape-murder of an 11-year-old Illinois girl.

Twice convicted of the 1992 crime, only to have the guilty verdicts overturned on appeal, Juan Rivera is scheduled to be tried a third time next week. However, his DNA doesn’t match semen taken from the 11-year-old’s body, and his lawyers say identifying another suspect via DNA testing could prove his innocence, reports the Chicago Tribune.

The victim, Holly Staker, was stabbed to death as she was baby-sitting two younger children.

Although a prosecutor joined with Rivera’s counsel in requesting that the FBI search its national database to try to match the semen to a suspect, the agency had refused to do so because the semen was tested by a DNA examiner who has refused to undergo an FBI-required accreditation process. However, examiner Edward Blake is nationally recognized as a leading DNA expert, said U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer. She ordered the FBI to conduct the search, finding that the result could be critical to Rivera’s case.

A DOJ spokesman says the FBI is reviewing Pallmeyer’s ruling. One possibility would be to appeal it, the Tribune says, although the spokesman didn’t refer to that possibility.

“We’ve searched a couple state databases and come up empty. But the national database is the Holy Grail,” defense attorney Jeffrey Urdangen of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions tells the newspaper. “If we locate a person from the profile, that’s the killer. That could end the case as far we’re concerned.”

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Mermel, couldn’t be reached by the newspaper for comment. He has previously said he doesn’t think the semen came from the 11-year-old’s killer, but supports the suggestion that it be added to the national DNA database, the newspaper notes. Mermel is chief of the criminal division in the state’s attorney’s office.

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