A great article in Newsweek on the Christa Worthington case
A Lingering Mystery on The Cape
Why did it take so long to arrest a suspected killer?
DNA dragnet: Worthington’s killer could have been found in days, not years
By Rebecca Sinderbrand
April 25 issue – For three years, police in tiny Truro, Massachusetts, had been searching for a killer. Yet they had no idea who murdered 46-year-old Christa Worthington. A world-weary fashion writer from a prominent family, Worthington had left behind the grind of New York journalism and settled into a quieter life in the Cape Cod town. Residents were shocked when she was discovered half naked on her kitchen floor on Jan. 6, 2002, a single stab wound in her chest. Her 2-year-old daughter, who was found sitting beside her, had been alone with the body for nearly two days.
The case drew national attention as suspicion wrongly settled on men with whom Worthington had been romantically involved. Police questioned the man who had found her body when he came to return a borrowed flashlight. were also drawn to a married lobsterman who fathered the daughter she was raising on her own. But after three years’ effort failed to lead to an arrest, frustrated police turned to a controversial tactic: a DNA dragnet. Genetic evidence had been found at the crime scene and in January, investigators began asking for DNA samples from hundreds of randomly selected men in Truro. Civil-liberties groups denounced the effort, saying it trampled on individual rights. The ACLU pointed out that of 19 such dragnets carried out nationwide, only one had led to an arrest.
But late last week police announced a break in the case. They arrested Christopher McCowen, a 33-year old garbage collector with a long criminal history, and charged him with the murder. According to prosecutors, McCowen’s DNA matched the evidence found at the scene. McCowen pleaded not guilty.
What took so long? As it turned out, the DNA dragnet had nothing to do with the arrest, and may have actually delayed it. Police had questioned McCowen earlier in the investigation, and he had voluntarily given a DNA sample in March 2004. But for some reason, the police apparently sat on the sample for several months before turning it over to the state’s crime lab. Once it got there, the sample languished in the lab for another eight months, waiting its turn to be tested. The lab in Massachusetts—like many across the country—is undermanned and overworked. Police blamed the backlog at the lab for the delay, but lab officials say the cops could have had the results of McCowen’s test in just a few days if they’d told the lab he was a high-priority suspect. Instead, while they were waiting for the results, the police launched the DNA dragnet—flooding the already swamped lab with hundreds of additional samples.
Yet there might not have been a need to do a DNA test on McCowen in the first place. In 1998, he left prison after doing time in Florida for car theft. By law, that state now sends DNA samples of all convicted felons to a nationwide criminal database. But at the time, McCowen’s offense was not yet eligible for inclusion in that system. If it had been logged into the list, a suspected killer could have been caught in days, instead of years.