The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

16 April 2005

DNA Demands Proved Controversial

Finally, An Arrest

Murder Case Baffled Cape Cod Residents For Years

(with updates)

Finally, there's word of an arrest in one of Cape Cod's most baffling crimes in history, but tonight there are as many new questions, as answers.

Methods used by prosecutors to obtain evidence, for one thing, remain as controversial as ever. And the suspect's relationship to the victim is especially difficult to determine.

It's the kind of crime that's sure to get major national media attention: a former fashion magazine writer and young mother is slain in a small Massachusetts town, but without an obvious suspect, investigators are baffled.

That's where it's stood since the murder occurred in 2002, until now.

How far, however, should law enforcement officials be allowed to go to solve the case? In Truro, Cape Cod, Mass., the demand was for DNA samples from every man in town.

That's right, every male was asked, as though they were guilty until proven innocent. Those who refused reported coercive tactics by Cape and Islands prosecutors. In January, the ACLU, after initially deciding not to oppose it, switched positions, becoming vocal critics:

(Eric Williams- Cape Cod Times- 11 January 2005)

TRURO - Reversing its previous position, the ACLU of Massachusetts has asked Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe and Truro Police Chief John Thomas to stop mass DNA testing as part of the Christa Worthington murder investigation.

"The mass collection of DNA samples by the police is a serious intrusion on personal privacy that has proven to be both ineffective and wasteful," John Reinstein, legal director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, wrote in a letter to O'Keefe.

The ACLU letter was a change of tune for the organization, which works to defend and preserve individual rights and liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

On Wednesday, after police started collecting DNA samples, Reinstein told the Times, "There's nothing that prevents police from asking people for a DNA sample as long as there's no coercion. As long as they are not being detained or required to provide a sample it is not illegal."

The irony is that the suspect arrested today, 33-year-old Christopher McCowen, had cooperated from the beginning and long ago, voluntarily provided or agreed to give such a sample.

Tonight, reporters are trying to get real reasons, rather than weak excuses about budget cuts, as to why the suspected killer could have continued to move freely throughout the Cape so long after providing this evidence.

His background includes a lengthy criminal record accumulated while living in Florida years earlier.

News reports today have varied on when McCowen provided the DNA sample. Was it just recently, or two full years ago? In either case, why did it take so long to get it, or analyze it?

What took police so long to make an arrest if his DNA matched that found on Worthington's body?

The other big question: how did he know her? Other than picking up her trash, it's not clear what connection he had to Crista Worthington.

Here's what I can't figure out: if he knew he'd committed this murder, then why would he be so willing to help investigators from the beginning? Is there any chance he isn't the killer?

Let's hope the justice system for the Cape and Islands returns now to the American standard of innocent until proven guilty. Constitutional rights do not end at the Cape Cod Canal.

Expect more questions, rather than a sudden avalanche of answers, as this investigation continues.

(Cape Cod Times- Emily C. Dooley and Karen Jeffrey- 15 April 2005)

Suspecting a trash hauler "wasn't anything that was in the radar of all the possibilities," she said.

But that's just the type of person sought by investigators, either to identify the killer or to lead them to the killer. An FBI profile said the DNA donor likely was a member of the Truro-area community who knew the victim in some way, either from a dating relationship or someone who checked meters at the house or filled up the oil, a state police investigator said early this year.

It's also why local and state police conducted a mass DNA swabbing in Truro earlier this year.

"We never viewed this as a cold case," Truro Chief John Thomas said at today's press conference. "This just shows if you're consistent and determined, you can bring a case to closure."

Christa Worthington in her New York apartment. Cape Cod Times photo credit

McCowen was asked to give a DNA sample to police four months after Worthington's death, and, along with many others, said that he would. He voluntarily gave his sample and "we're fortunate that he did," O'Keefe said.

Two years passed before McCowen's DNA was actually taken in 2004 due to McCowen's movements, O'Keefe said when questioned by reporters today. McCowen lived in various Lower Cape towns from the mid-1990s to at least 2003.

Update: The Boston Herald delves into the controversy over why this prime suspect would be allowed to walk free for what they say is a full year since giving a DNA sample:

(Boston Herald- Michelle McPhee and Tom Mashburg- 16 April 2005)

ORLEANS - A chronic backlog at the state police crime lab allowed an ex-con to roam free for 13 months before being arrested and charged with the rape and murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington, an official said.
``We are the first to acknowledge the crime lab lacks the capacity to process evidence at the speed the police and public would like,'' said Executive Office of Public Safety spokeswoman Katie Ford. ``It is why we're seeking more funding.''
A DNA swab was voluntarily given by Christopher McCowen in March 2004, but the crime lab did not match it to DNA recovered from the lifeless body of Worthington, 46, until last week.
Ford said the lab, which has only 12 technicians, usually turns DNA results around in six months and can do so in a week if investigators say the test is an urgent priority.
Of the 13 months from the time McCowen's DNA was taken to when it allegedly was matched, she said: ``Just because we know when a sample was collected doesn't mean we know when it made it to the lab.''


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