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Posted on Fri. May. 01, 2015 - 12:01 am EDT

Allen County could again make DNA history

The Sharon Lapp residence, 501 W. Rudisill Blvd. is seen during her murder investigation 30 years ago. (News-Sentinel file photo).
Karen Richards, Allen County Prosecutor. ( Photo By Ellie  Bogue of The News-Sentinel ).
Linda McDonald, forensic scientist at the Indiana State Police Crime Lab, Fort Wayne, in the DNA testing lab. ( Photo by Ellie Bogue of The News-Sentinel ).
Click on image to view.
Thirty years ago on May 1 the grisly murder of Sharon Lapp forever changed the way homicide scenes were handled and prosecutors build their cases in Indiana.
For the first time DNA evidence was used to identify the murder suspect. It was a landmark case for Indiana, and come this fall, Allen County could once again break ground in the state judicial system with a new DNA test standard.
The first case
Lapp was found slain May 1, 1985, in her West Rudisill Boulevard home. The 43-year-old homemaker and community activist had been raped and sodomized, had her throat cut and been stabbed several times in the back and side. Her husband found her nude body stretched across her bed when he came home from work.
At the time of her death Lapp published the Messenger, a newsletter critical of the police and city administration, and kept secret dossiers on then-Mayor Win Moses Jr., police chief David C. Riemen, Public Safety Director Larry Consalvos and others. Lapp was investigating suspicions of wrongdoing by officials and had intended to take her evidence to the attorney general's office when she was killed, friends said.
Police command officers removed Lapp's files before her study could be processed for evidence. That, and police mishandling of physical evidence collected at the scene, seriously crippled the state's case and resulted in the dismissal of several charges against the murder suspect Frank Hopkins.
It took five days to select the jury, 17 days of DNA testimony outside the presence of the jury and a 24-day trial that was focused on the controversial DNA evidence – the first time it had been used in Indiana – the secret files Lapp had on city officials and the police, the police misconduct the day of the crime and Hopkins' actions on the day of the crime. The Allen Circuit Court jury found Hopkins guilty and he was sentenced four years after the crime to 60 years in prison. However, that sentence was to follow a 100-year sentence for an unrelated Oregon crime. Hopkins, now Frank Ali Abdul-rahmaan, 66, is in Oregon's Two Rivers Correctional Institution.
'One more thing'
Thirty years ago Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards was a deputy prosecutor. She had just been moved from four years in misdemeanor court to felony cases. Now-retired Judge Stephen Sims was the Allen County prosecutor, who tried the case, the most expensive one to ever to be tried in the county. Primarily, Richards said, that was because of the cost of paying for all the experts to talk about the validity of DNA testing.
“I remember that case; my impression was always they needed the one more thing to seal the case,” Richards said.
That one more thing was the DNA test that was admitted as evidence that matched Hopkins to the crime scene. DNA had already been used successfully in other states, but Richards said Indiana's court system tends to be more cautious in its use of new technology. It took several more years after the case before the use of DNA in the courtroom became routine. For a while Richards said prosecutors reserved the use of the test for extremely unpleasant sex cases, or crimes that they couldn't solve any other way. After it became a routine practice the state was able to stop hiring expert witnesses and that cut down on the cost for a case to use DNA evidence at a trial.
“It really changed the way we looked at cases. With sex crimes it gave you that one extra thing. The science doesn't lie,” Richards said.
You may still have an argument over if it was consensual sex, Richards said, but if it was a stranger it takes away the argument that the victim couldn't really see her attacker.
“It's not just sex offenses; it's all kind of stuff,” Richards said.
There is no questions the test has allowed investigators to solve more cases. Richards said she remembers a case where a man had been tied up with a lamp cord and beaten during a burglary. Investigators were able to find DNA on the lamp cord from the attacker.
A downside
The drawback is it can confuse the issue, too. If that lamp cord had multiple skin cells on it investigators would have to eliminate every one of those samples to prove the case.
“It's a two-edged sword,” Richards said.
It makes more work for everybody with more collection on the scene, which is frequently held longer. Sometimes police control access to a scene until after the autopsy is performed, just to make sure they don't miss anything. It takes longer to get cases to trial because of waiting on the evidence and with new advances in DNA testing Richards said there are some new DNA test advances out there that they are still trying to get a good read on.
“We are conservative in Indiana; we don't do a lot of stupid stuff,” Richards said.
Richards doesn't see that as a bad thing, it allows other jurisdictions to try it out and make mistakes first.
The new equation
A change in the data allowed from the DNA test called 2P is new to Indiana, Richards said. If the prosecution is allowed to use it in the Freddie Alcantar Jr. murder trial this fall, it would be the first time in the state.
Alcantar, 37, of the 3000 block of McDonald Street, pleaded not guilty in March 2014 in the death of his mother-in-law, 59-year-old Debra Jones, who was found Aug. 30, 2013, in the bathroom of her home on Myanna Lane. According to a probable-cause affidavit, a shoe/boot print was found under Jones' body, and blood evidence was collected and sent for DNA profiling. The Indiana State Police notified Fort Wayne Police Department investigators that blood evidence collected from a kitchen counter in Jones' home was positively identified as coming from Alcantar; however, Alcantar had maintained that the only rooms he went into after Jones' body was found by her daughter, Erika Alcantar, were the bathroom and bedroom, according to the probable-cause affidavit.
Alcantar's trial in Allen Superior Court is scheduled for October.
The DNA test is not new, but the mathematical formula used in 2P is, said Linda McDonald, forensic scientist at the Indiana State Police Crime Lab in Fort Wayne. In the past investigators would not be able to use low-level data, so some evidence would never be used. With the new mathematical formulas it can be used. McDonald said she was first made aware of it three years ago during a forensics conference in Kentucky. Starting last year the Indiana began using the new formulas. Based on the same amount of DNA, they can make an analysis based on fewer genetic marker matches.
“It's never a matter of finding a perfect DNA 'match.' You are reporting one in this many of the population, or less than 1 in 8 trillion, has contributed to this. We leave it up to the judge and jury to determine,” McDonald said.
April 27 in an Allen County Courtroom Deputy Prosecutors Jason Custer and Steven Godfrey set a time for a hearing Aug. 24 and 25 for expert witnesses to come in and explain the validity of the new 2P equations that were used in the DNA test for the Alcantar case. If the court rules in favor of allowing it to be submitted as evidence, it will be the watershed case for the state, just as the Lapp case was when DNA test results were first submitted as evidence.
“You have to have hearings to prove that the new advances you are using are proven science and not just some hoo-ha that someone dreamed up,” Richards said.

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