The optimist who first shared the bromide “time heals all wounds” must not have had a child killed in an unsolved murder.
Nobody knows abiding pain more than the families of Michella Welch, 12, and Jennifer Bastian, 13, the Tacoma girls who were sexually assaulted and slain in two different parks in 1986. After completing new DNA tests, Tacoma police announced last week they're investigating the likelihood the girls weren’t killed by the same person. They also said they were deploying an unusual 75-person response team as if the crimes were fresh.
The heartache felt by the family of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph goes back twice as far, to the girl's 1957 murder in Sycamore, Illinois. Relatives believed they'd found justice in 2011 when new evidence pointed across the country to a man named Jack McCullough. Once a teenager who lived near the Ridulphs, McCullough went on to make a life in the Puget Sound and worked as a police officer in Milton and Lacey.
In what looked like the end to the nation's longest cold case, McCullough was extradited to Illinois and found guilty in 2012 of murder and kidnapping. He maintained his innocence.
These enduring tragedies highlight the inestimable value of thorough DNA testing and record keeping in an era when advances in genetic and forensic science and data management have made it possible.
Washington state has made strides toward compiling a deeper trove of criminal DNA samples, but it could do better. The democratic principles of victims receiving true justice – and defendants receiving true due process – depend on it.
The prosecutor in DeKalb County, Illinois, shocked the small city where Maria was murdered when he proclaimed on March 25 that the evidence against McCullough was too flimsy to have sent him to prison. After a six-month review, state's attorney Richard Schmack determined McCullough must be innocent.
“Compounding the tragedy by convicting the wrong man, and fighting further in the hopes of keeping him jailed, is not the proper legacy for our community, or for the memory of Maria Ridulph,” Schmack concluded.
Physical evidence could have saved both families from this ordeal, but there was none. DNA testing wasn’t available at the time of the murder, and later attempts to retrieve samples from the girl’s remains failed.
By contrast, DNA was collected from Michella and Jennifer, the Tacoma murder victims, although no match to potential suspects has been made.
Washington has long required DNA collection for sex offenders and other felons, but gaps persist. Tacoma Police Detective Lindsey Wade found one a few years ago, and fixed it, by supplementing the state’s DNA database with samples from all sex offenders living at the Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island.
While it didn’t provide clues in Michella and Jennifer’s deaths, it did solve the case of a 19-year-old Bellevue woman who was murdered and raped in 1980.
Lawmakers in the last two years have plugged another gap by passing landmark “rape kit” legislation. It will help ensure a statewide backlog of biological evidence from sexual assaults is properly tested and tracked.
Likewise, the Legislature next year should revive Senate Bill 6366. It would require DNA collection upon arrest when a serious crime against a person has been committed; currently, a cheek swab isn’t taken until after conviction. Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, has fought for this overdue change since 2012.
Expanding DNA databases will keep hope alive for falsely convicted men and women languishing behind bars. DNA tests have exonerated 337 convicted inmates in the U.S. since 1989, according to the Innocence Project.
It also will keep more victims’ families from having emotional scabs ripped off, needlessly exposing years of deep-seated pain.