When I was working for lawyers, a case was brought to Peter Neufeld, the lawyer for whom I worked most directly.
The case involved rape in an upstate community.
The rape story was pretty murky, an accusation that did not sound entirely credible but, regardless, the man who had been accused had been imprisoned.
His lawyer got in touch with Peter, asking for help. It was determined that such help could come out of a refrigerator in the local forensic facility, where at least one piece of cloth, probably panties showing semen stains, had been stored. It had not been tested for DNA.
Given popular current appreciation for DNA testing, it may seem surprising that the evidence in that case hadn’t been tested. But this was in the mid-1990s and there yet was no type of testing in the U.S. that had been fully accepted by a consensus of prosecutors, judges, forensic scientists and defense lawyers. (Indeed, until recently, prosecutors have fought against locating potentially exculpatory evidence and releasing it for testing.)
The first case in which DNA uncovered a rapist and killer of two teenage girls was in England, after British geneticist Alec Jeffreys successfully developed a testing formula in late 1984. A relentless and imaginative police detective, David Baker, heard about Jeffreys’ work and approached him for help in solving the two crimes. The first girl had been killed in 1983, the second in 1986. The crimes weren’t solved until 1987, after 5000 local men had volunteered to be tested.
It’s a hell of a story. I read Joseph Wambaugh’s 1989 police procedural, The Blooding, about the case. It was quite good but if you want a really suspenseful, compelling reconstruction of the true story, try 2015’s The Code of A Killer, a three-part TV series produced by ITV. I watched it on Acorn but you can probably find it elsewhere. One huge pleasure is seeing the great British actor, David Threlfall, as Detective David Baker. He is mesmerizing.
So this case was brought to our office. I remember Peter negotiating on the phone with the upstate District Attorney (or ADA) about getting the evidence tested. Eventually, she agreed.
Peter had selected a reputable small lab in Boston, or the Boston suburbs, for the testing. The District Attorney reported she had packaged the evidence and shipped it via UPS express for delivery the following day or maybe the next day.
The lab director did not get the delivery. Not on the expected date nor on the next one.
A lot of phone calls ensued. I remember one of my own — to UPS — that was especially infuriating. They could not say where the package had gone, where it was now, who had attempted delivery, if there had been an attempt. Nothing.
But all was not lost. Or, rather, all should not have been lost. Peter called the upstate DA to verify what had happened and get receipts, copies of shipping labels and numbers. And he instructed her to have her forensic people snip another piece of the semen-stained fabric, package it again and send it via another carrier to the lab.
It was protocol — never mind intelligence and common sense — that when evidence of this kind was shipped from a facility, only half of it would be cut and shipped, leaving half in the original facility as a fail-safe, or perhaps for further, different testing.
But the DA had had the entire piece of evidence shipped. All of it.
UPS, presumably because it’s a corporate entity which charges far more than the Post Office — as does FedEx and all the other shipping corporations — is believed to be far more reliable than the plain old United States Postal Service.
The evidence was never found. Never.
It was extraordinarily lucky that the man accused of rape did not remain in prison for 30 years. As it happened, the accuser’s story broke down or an alibi held up or something like that, and he was released from prison, his case dismissed.
No thanks to UPS.
And that is one major reason I always use the United States Post Office to send anything at all. In my lifetime, they have never lost or delayed delivering any piece of mail I’ve sent.
I trust USPS.