On May 2, 1981, around 1 a.m., a 21-year-old woman woke to find an intruder raping her in her bed. The intruder had broken into her home on Evanston Road in Springfield, raped and sodomized the woman, then left after stealing several items from her home.
The case had Fairfax County Police detectives stumped for over two decades until DNA tests led them to Glenn Mitchell, 57, of Clinton, Md. On Aug. 20, Mitchell was arrested by Prince George's County Police and extradited to Fairfax County, where he is held without bond as he faces charges of rape, forcible sodomy, robbery and burglary in the 23-year-old case.
"We collected evidence from the scene in this particular case, and it was placed in our evidence room," said Capt. Mike Spradlin, commander of the major crimes division of the Fairfax County Police Department. "We hold onto everything we have in every case with the hopes of someday solving a case."
Earlier this year, Spradlin said, the police department assigned a detective to look at cold sex cases. The detective found several old cases that could benefit from relatively recent DNA technology. Fairfax police sent the evidence to labs at the Virginia Division of Forensic Science in Richmond and waited for it to be processed.
"The lady in the lab called our detective and said we have a cold hit, and it was a gentleman [Mitchell] who was already in our system who had a prior rape in the county back in the ‘80s," said Spradlin.
The victim still lives in the area and is willing to move on the case, he added.
LAST FRIDAY, Mitchell appeared in court wearing a green Fairfax County Jail jumpsuit. His face looked gaunt and drawn as Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Swart and public defender Jeffrey Overand debated when to set the trial date. Overand asked that the trial be set in January to give the defense time to find witnesses who might remember something they saw 23 years ago. Swart urged Circuit Court Judge Michael McWeeny to set the trial in November or December. McWeeny set the trial date for Dec. 6, but said he would be willing to reschedule if the defense needs more time to put its case together.
"Given the issue you'd think the commonwealth would want us to take every opportunity to interview witnesses and prepare because we assume they're not willing to put the wrong guy in prison," said Whitney Minter, another public defender on the case. "You're always concerned that you're not given time to do everything for your client."
Like many other public defenders in Virginia, Overand and Minter are juggling dozens of other cases while working to defend Mitchell. Minter estimated they had about 100 other open cases, including one 3-day murder trial that is set to go to court in November.
WHEN THE crime occurred, in 1981, DNA testing was still several years away. Although the structure of DNA was first elucidated in 1953, it was not until the mid-1980s that it was used to help solve crimes, said Dr. Paul Ferrara, who runs the lab at the Virginia Division of Forensic Science. DNA is as individual as a fingerprint and can be extracted from body fluids, hair or body tissue.
Virginia has been using DNA to help solve crimes since 1989. Since then, Ferrara said, it has made significant advancements, which may help shed light on old cases that had previously remained unsolved.
"In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the technique was not very sensitive," he said. "It would require a bloodstain maybe the size of a half-dollar or maybe a seminal fluid stain the size of a dime. ... Today I can develop that same DNA profile that's unique to an individual and his or her identical twin with a sample as minute as saliva on a cigarette butt or a piece of chewing gum, a speck of blood ... a bite out of a sandwich, the bottleneck of a beer bottle."
The lab keeps a database of about 225,000 DNA samples of convicted felons in Virginia. When local police departments send samples of evidence from cold cases, technicians run the samples through the database and look for a match.
"We have had over 2,000, almost 2,200 hits like this," he said. "Our biggest problem right now is coping with the volume of cases because there's so much evidence now that police can collect. ... I've got over 2,000 waiting for analysis."
To Spradlin, the Fairfax County commander, DNA technology has proved invaluable. When he first joined the police almost 30 years ago, he said, "You relied on good old-fashioned knocking on doors and doing what you considered good police work. We're still doing good police work, this is just another tool."
"It's kind of gratifying to us to know we've closed another cold case," he added. "Who knows 20 years from now what technology will be out there available to us."