Southworth case typifies the waiting game of police work

jkegley@herald-leader.comJuly 5, 2010 

A key piece of evidence that Lexington police need to name a suspect in Umi Southworth's brutal beating death could be in a laboratory in Frankfort. But it could be another month or possibly longer until police know whether test results will give detectives the break needed to name a suspect.

Investigators say that's not uncommon in cases like this. Typically, analyzing DNA in a homicide or sexual assault case can take four to six months. Lower-priority crimes, such as burglaries or robberies, can take up to 10 or 11 months.

What is happening in the Southworth case is not unusual — it's closer to reality than what is often seen on CSI and Law & Order. Cracking a case takes time, and investigators say the Southworth case is a reminder that collecting and identifying forensic evidence is not as quick or easy as it looks on TV.

"The technology and the science in those shows is valid most of the time. The circumstances and the timing at which they're getting it done, no," said Lexington police Sgt. Allen Dobson, supervisor of the forensic services unit.

It has been nearly a month since Southworth, 44, was found badly beaten behind her home on Meadowthorpe Avenue. Southworth lay under the bushes for more than three hours before coroner's officials realized she was alive. She was transported to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, where she died the next day.

No arrests have been made.

Southworth's husband, Don, was interviewed at police headquarters on June 9, the night his wife was found, and released. It's not clear whether anyone else has been taken to police headquarters for questioning.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said investigators are "working diligently" to make an arrest. Roberts has not described all of the testing police are doing and said lab work was only a part of the larger homicide investigation. She would not elaborate.

"Some people may feel that this is an 'open-and-shut' case, but our main concern is not being sidetracked by what looks like an easy answer, but being diligent and getting the right answer," Roberts said.

Roberts said tests pending at the Kentucky State Police crime laboratory will be instrumental in naming a suspect in Southworth's case.

Laura Sudkamp, director of the Kentucky State Police crime lab, said Southworth's case has been given high priority, but it could be a month or more before results are returned.

Generally speaking, Sudkamp said, lab results for high-priority cases take 30 to 60 days to return.

Sudkamp declined to discuss other details about the Southworth investigation because it is ongoing.

Sudkamp said cases can be made high-priority based on a number of circumstances, including whether the crime involved a child or whether an arrest has not been made.

"If ... they think there is a killer or a rapist on the loose that they're afraid will commit another crime, those cases will get pushed through on a rush," Sudkamp said.

Neighbors in the Meadow thorpe neighborhood are looking forward to hearing that police have made an arrest. From their point of view, a killer is on the loose.

"I think the mood of the neighborhood is, they want answers," said Joe Collins, president of the neighborhood association. "They're tired of all of this backtracking, and not giving us answers and being silent."

Lexington: No DNA work

Lexington police do not have the capability to do forensics involving DNA samples or blood work; all DNA and blood work in Kentucky is done through the state police crime lab.

The lab's backlog is 5,133 cases, including 1,044 forensics cases. Nearly 20,000 cases have been submitted to the crime lab this year.

Priority cases such as Southworth's can jump ahead of older cases, Sudkamp said, though turnaround times still can be up to two months.

DNA samples and fingerprints share two things in common: The results can place a person beyond a doubt at the scene of a crime, and no two DNA profiles or fingerprints are the same.

With a positive match, officers can "quit looking at everyone else," Sudkamp said. "You say, 'This is the guy, his DNA is on there.' You know who did it, but they've got to still take other steps that support that claim."

Fingerprinting and DNA testing can be arduous processes.

While Lexington police don't do DNA testing, they can check on fingerprints. Earlier this year, they began using a program called AFIS, or automated fingerprint identification system. It is the same system used by the FBI, Roberts said.

Using databases maintained by Kentucky State Police or the FBI, AFIS can return hundreds of potential fingerprint matches in less than a minute. However, there are factors that might draw out the identification process for several days.

It can take time to find a fingerprint that might belong to the perpetrator at a crime scene. If a print is found, it has to be lifted from the surface and then scanned into the system, which could take hours or days. If the print is smudged or damaged, results might be flawed.

Even after the computer has returned potential results, the matches have to be verified by trained forensics detectives.

"I won't give that information out until I have somebody else look at it and say, 'Yep, you're right, that's it,' " Dobson said. "If it's a criminal case, at least two other people will look at it."

Collecting DNA evidence is a matter of sorting through blood or other body fluids at the scene to try to find pertinent pieces of evidence.

"It's not quite the same as you see on TV when they go, 'Oh, here's this big obvious blood stain,' " Sudkamp said. "If the victim's blood is found on the victim, that doesn't mean anything. It's difficult to find blood that you know is the suspect's. My blood and your blood look the same on the wall."

And any number of environmental factors, such as sun or mildew, can corrupt samples.

Like with fingerprints, once DNA tests are completed, they have to be verified and reviewed. And even with a positive match, more evidence is required for a case to be prosecuted.

Roberts said detectives are taking their time to make sure they get the Southworth case right.

Investigators realize people want answers now, she said, but that is not how things work. Police have been reluctant to say much about the case because they don't want to harm it in any way.

"If we rushed and we were lazy and irresponsible or careless, maybe we would have already made an arrest in this case," Roberts said. "We are covering all of our bases to make sure that when we do make an arrest, we have arrested the right person."

Roberts added that it "would be a violation of somebody's civil rights if we arrested someone without probable cause."

"I don't think anyone wants us going down that road, where we arrest people because we think they've done something," she said. "We arrest people when we have proof they've done something."

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