Pierce County prosecutors use genetic ID to keep cases alive

Pierce County submits unknown suspects’ DNA codes to forestall statute of limitations

Staff writerMarch 10, 2014 

In place of the rapist’s name on charging documents are 16 lines of genetic code.

The pattern of letters and numbers might not mean much to the casual observer, but for Pierce County prosecutors, it means a heightened chance of one day putting the man on trial.

For now, he’s one of five active “John Doe” cases in the Superior Court system.

“What this essentially does is stop the clock when it comes to statute of limitations,” said Bryce Nelson, assistant team chief of the Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Assault Unit. “We know who this person is; we just don’t know their name.”

Warrants issued on the basis of a DNA profile rather than a name — called John Doe warrants — are fairly rare.

A search of the court database shows 11 issued since 1980. That does not include cases where a suspect eventually was identified, such as with Terapon Dang Adhahn, who was convicted of killing 12-year-old Zina Linnick and raping two other schoolgirls.

The first time Adhahn was charged with a crime in Pierce County, he was a John Doe. Detectives developed his DNA profile from evidence after he kidnapped an 11-year-old girl in 2000 as she walked to school, repeatedly raped her and then left her in a remote area of Fort Lewis.

It wasn’t until 2007, after he snatched Zina from the alley behind her Hilltop home and then led police to her body eight days later, that his DNA was linked to the 2000 rape and Adhahn ceased to be a John Doe.

In the case filed last week, the suspect is accused of raping a then-37-year-old woman who has the mental capacity of a young child. The attack took place in East Side Tacoma near a store where the woman was working.

Tacoma police submitted evidence from the case for DNA work in March 2013 as part of a cold case grant and quickly got word that the crime lab had developed a DNA profile of the rapist.

Although the profile did not match anybody in a national database of known felons, prosecutors moved forward with charging the case as a John Doe.

Prosecutors choose to charge a case based on evidence, not what information is available on the suspect, Nelson said.

“If we have somebody’s name or DNA profile, we’re going to charge it regardless,” he said. “We err on the side of caution when it comes to statute of limitations.”

The statute of limitations on rape in Washington is 10 years after the incident or three years after it is reported. With the John Doe cases, prosecutors have an additional year from the time the suspect is identified by name.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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