I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the significance of DNA, but then I read this fact and it made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about the science of the stuff!
Here’s another fact. Did you know this one?
DNA is so jam packed with data that it’s no surprise DNA has been the key to solving multiple mysteries. Here are three famous mysteries solved using DNA:
- The Boston Strangler Case
19-year-old Mary Sullivan had just moved to Boston from Cape Cod, when she was found dead just a few days later in her apartment. She’d been raped and strangled. The year? 1964. Eventually, a guy named Albert DeSalvo confessed to killing her and ten other women. Case closed? Not quite. A lot of skepticism surrounded DeSalvo’s confession. Was he just looking for attention? Some victims’ accounts didn’t seem to match up with DeSalvo as the killer.
50 years later, DNA helped pin down answers when the National Institute of Justice provided funding to run tests. DeSalvo had actually been killed less than a decade after being sentenced to life in prison. Stabbed in prison by fellow inmates. So scientists compared DNA from Sullivan’s rapist, left behind on a blanket near her body, to a DNA sample taken from DeSalvo’s nephew. DNA along the male family line remains very specific on certain strands. The DNA test from the nephew showed that there was a very good chance DeSalvo was, in fact, Mary Sullivan’s murderer. Case closed? Still not yet.
Officials exhumed DeSalvo’s body and the DNA match remained consistent. The chance it was anyone besides DeSalvo was one in 220 billion. Case closed.
The Mystery of the Burial Site of Richard III
One of the coolest things about DNA is that it can last for thousands of years if it’s kept in a dry, cool, dark place. Case in point:
After Richard III was killed in the Wars of the Roses in 1485, he was buried in a crude grave in a church. When the church was demolished, the grave was lost.
Jump ahead to the year 2012, and a search began for Richard’s body. On the very first day of the search, there was a promising find when the bones of a man in his thirties were uncovered in a parking lot in Leicester. The skeleton showed a severe curvature of the back, which could likely match Richard’s spinal deformity.
DNA from those bones matched a man named Michael Ibsen, who was a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister.
The Exoneration of Ronald Cotton
In 1984 in North Carolina, someone, on two separate occasions, broke into an apartment, raped a woman inside, and burglarized the place. One of the victims was a college student named Jennifer Thompson.
In 1985, Thompson testified in court that a man she identified as Ronald Cotton was the rapist, and a jury convicted him. In addition to Thompson’s identification of Cotton, evidence against him included a flashlight that Cotton owned that resembled one used in the attack, and rubber from the crime scene being consistent with rubber from Cotton’s shoes. A Superior Court sentenced Cotton to life in prison plus 54 years.
In 1995, evidence was submitted for DNA testing. It found that DNA from the crime scene was not a match to Cotton, but the DNA from the scene did match another convicted criminal whose DNA was in the state’s database. Cotton was freed from prison after spending 11 years there. Thompson’s guilt over helping convict the wrong man led her to request a meeting with Thompson, and the two have since developed a friendship.
In my newest Hunt for Jack Reacher book, Jack and Joe, FBI Special Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar don’t have either brother’s DNA. Not yet, anyway. But DNA research has revealed behavioral similarities between siblings, as I wrote about HERE. Otto and Gaspar track down facts about Joe because they believe those facts will help them in their Hunt for Jack Reacher. The question is — what exactly do Otto and Gaspar learn about the Reacher brothers and how does that knowledge advance the hunt?