Bruce Dallas Goodman's 2004 holiday letter went something like this:
"Can you believe a month has already gone by since that wonderful day that we witnessed Bruce walking to freedom?"
Goodman spent his first Christmas in 20 years outside the razor-wire of the Utah State Prison after DNA tests placed others at the scene of the murder for which Goodman was convicted in 1984.
His emotions are mixed, however, as he tries to piece his life together and scrape up money to sue the state of Utah for his wrongful conviction.
"I'm mad as hell. Not at any one person, I'm mad at the system," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Indiana. "It's gotten to the point where it's not about the man on trial. It's about appeasing the public. It's about politics, and that's crazy. We're talking about people's lives here."
Thankfully, the science of DNA technology can remove the politics and prejudice from the criminal justice system, he said.
"It's changed a lot of things for a lot of people," he said. "There's about 100 cases now, and God bless every one of those guys that's on the streets that wasn't supposed to be in prison."
As DNA science continues to evolve, it is quickly becoming more clear that the technology fills a unique niche for those on all sides of the criminal-justice system."It's revolutionized, in a way, the prosecution of cases," Utah Assistant Attorney General C.C. Horton said. "It is technology that is so powerful in its ability either to exonerate or convict that it really has changed the landscape (of the system). When I started, it was all fingerprints and other kinds of circumstantial evidence."
Shield and sword
For Goodman, DNA was the golden key that unlocked the prison gate, but for Rudy Romero, it was just the opposite.
Last spring, a review by Salt Lake City detectives of 11 unsolved rapes and abductions from the early 1990s included a DNA test on a sample collected from Romero under a recently passed state law that mandates the collection of DNA samples from everyone convicted of a felony, and some misdemeanor crimes, in Utah.
Convicted of an aggravated burglary, Romero was sitting at the Utah State Prison, but he was set for parole in July. However, when state crime lab technicians matched Romero's DNA profile to evidence collected from five victims, they took the information to the state Board of Pardons and Parole.
Romero, now believed by police to be the so-called Parkway Rapist since the alleged assaults took place along or near the Jordan River Parkway, had his parole revoked by the board and will not get another chance at parole until 2025. He could not be tried in any of the cases because the statute of limitations for rape had expired.
Under another new state law, such a situation is unlikely to occur again, Horton said.
With an eye on rapidly developing DNA technology, the Utah Legislature in 2003 amended the law to allow prosecution up to a year from the time a perpetrator is identified through DNA evidence, regardless of the original statute of limitations.
"That statute changes the landscape in Utah so that a few years from now there should be no cases like Rudy Romero where you can identify (an offender) through DNA but you can't prosecute," Horton said.
Goodman's and Romero's cases are the first in the state to be impacted by DNA evidence post-conviction, parole board chairman Mike Sibbett said.
"It's interesting that in a period of about four months we've had two major cases," Sibbett said. "The board is just now trying to absorb what impact that's going to have, not only on our workload, but on the entire criminal justice system. You can't have the thousands and thousands of cases that we review and not have it come up."
DNA science seems quite absolute, but Sibbett said he believes there is less "black and white as what a lot of people would like to think. It's not that simple."
In Goodman's case, he points out, DNA placed two other people at the scene of the crime, but did not necessarily exonerate Goodman from a role in the death of his then-girlfriend, 21-year-old Sherry Ann Fales Williams.
Goodman was released when Beaver County prosecutors declined to refile murder charges against him, stating that the DNA evidence of others from the crime scene created enough reasonable doubt that a conviction would be unlikely.
Goodman has always maintained his innocence, and even the Utah Attorney General's Office conceded that his conviction was based largely on circumstantial evidence. And the science of the day, blood typing, was exact but so broad as to have matched any number of people to the crime, he said.
Goodman sought help from Utah's Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, which filed a petition on his behalf asking that newly discovered evidence a vaginal washing from Williams' rape kit and two bodily fluid samples taken from the snow near the woman's body be retested with recent technology.
The 20-year-old evidence was examined through a process called Y-STR DNA testing, which ignores the existence of female DNA in samples and focuses only on the Y chromosomes present. The tests excluded Goodman as the donor of the male DNA in each of the samples, according to court documents.The Innocence Center had also asked that a partially smoked cigarette, the existence of which helped convict Goodman in January 1985, be retested with the latest technology, but the cigarette butt could not be located by technicians at the Utah State Crime Lab.
Sibbett believes the immediate impact of the Goodman case will be a flurry of legal actions by inmates seeking to have their DNA tested in order to prove their innocence. "I'm sure those individuals will be looking at anything and everything to try to get another trial, or some way to get released," Sibbett said.
In Romero's case, the board considered the DNA evidence a significant piece of new information and determined Romero might prove a risk to the safety of the community if released, Sibbett said.
"DNA is more than sufficient in making that kind of decision. It's more than simply hearsay, or than just a gut feeling," he said. "Still it's just a tool. A pretty darn good one, but (one) that's going to have to be carefully evaluated."
Salt Lake City Police Capt. Roger Winkler agrees. For all its beauty and apparent simplicity, DNA represents just one tool used by police in making a case.
"There are a tremendous amount of other things that we have to look at," said Winkler, who supervises the city's homicide squad and worked with the detective who solved the Parkway Rapist cases. "The problem we are seeing is that (television) shows like CSI are tainting juries.
"They think that if CSI can do this, we can. CSI is entertainment. It's not fact. They'll take a saliva sample and in five minutes tell you who did it. That is absurd."
But hardly a day goes by that Winkler doesn't field a phone call from someone suggesting or demanding Salt Lake police conduct investigations more like those seen on television. And that goes double for cold cases, Winkler said.
"There is a misconception that all cold cases are about DNA," Winkler said. "It has solved, so far, one of our cold cases. It had a tremendous impact on the Parkway Rapist (case), but then we did a tremendous amount of other work."
In order to use DNA in solving cases cold or otherwise police detectives have had to be retrained a bit, Winkler adds. Officers need to understand what types of evidence to look for, how to collect and when it's best to call the city police crime lab, or the Utah State Crime Lab for help.
State technicians will turn away evidence not correctly packaged or collected and, depending on the circumstances, that has the potential to kill a case, lab director Gabriel Bier said.
Winkler, however, does believe that DNA ultimately will help Salt Lake City and other police departments solve many of their cold cases."There's no doubt in my mind that we can get more cases solved," he said. "It's great to be able to go back and complete an investigation and say, 'That person did it,' and go out and get them."
Money = solving cases
Solving cases depends on two things: money and time.
Utah officials hope to address those concerns through a five-year, approximately $13.6 million federal grant for which the Utah Attorney General's Office applied last year.
The grant, administered through the National Institute of Justice, would bring about $2.8 million a year to the state. Chief special agent Ken Hansen expects to hear if the application was approved in early spring, and, if so, is ready to start comparing the backlog of cases to DNA samples currently in the state database.
"I would imagine through this five-year period we'll see more than a few homicides solved through the use of DNA," Hansen said.
Preliminary plans call for using the funds to hire a handful of investigators four in Salt Lake City, one for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office and at least two in the Attorney General's Office just to work on cold cases throughout the state.
The funds would also be directed toward training existing law enforcement officers and addressing victims' needs, Hansen said.
Goodman, predictably, believes it's well worth the money and time involved to ensure that no innocent person spends any time in prison.Comment on this story
"They need to know that they need to keep using (DNA testing) for any possible case," Goodman said. "If the Utah state Department of Corrections and the justice system doesn't have the money, then maybe they need to pass some legislation on that issue. The taxpayers should be willing to pay for it."
That appears to be what Fifth District Judge J. Philip Eves thought. The judge ordered the state of Utah to pay for Goodman's DNA test, despite arguments from the Attorney General's Office that it could not afford to.Testing, Goodman points out, is cheaper than settling the lawsuits that might come from wrongful convictions like his own.