Convicted serial killer, Timothy Spencer, the Southside Strangler, appealed his death sentence. He claimed that he was factually innocent, scientists did not adequately perform the DNA testing in his case, and that DNA testing is a flawed science. Were Spencer’s claims wrong? Is DNA testing flawed?
Spencer also challenged the facility that performed the DNA testing. The court found no flaws in their procedures.
* Remember, Spencer was the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death based on DNA evidence. This was a landmark case in the United States.
The following paragraphs are excerpts from Timothy W. Spencer’s appeal to The United States Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit. His argument – The DNA testing was flawed.
*WARNING – Parts of the text are quite graphic*
5 F.3d 758
Timothy W. SPENCER, Petitioner-Appellant,
Edward W. MURRAY, Director, Respondent-Appellee.
United States Court of Appeals,
Argued Oct. 28, 1992.
Decided Sept. 16, 1993.
J. Lloyd Snook, III, Snook & Haughey, Charlottesville, VA, argued (William T. Linka, Boatwright & Linka, Richmond, VA, on brief), for petitioner-appellant.
Donald Richard Curry, Sr. Asst. Atty. Gen., Richmond, VA (Mary Sue Terry, Atty. Gen. of Virginia, on brief), for respondent-appellee.
Before WIDENER, PHILLIPS, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.
WIDENER, Circuit Judge:
Timothy Wilson Spencer attacks a Virginia state court judgment sentencing him to death for the murder of Debbie Dudley Davis. We affirm.
* The gruesome details of the murder of Debbie Davis can be found in the Supreme Court of Virginia’s opinion on direct review, Spencer v. Commonwealth, 238 Va. 295, 384 S.E.2d 785 (1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1093, 110 S.Ct. 1171, 107 L.Ed.2d 1073 (1990). For our purposes, a brief recitation will suffice. Miss Davis was murdered sometime between 9:00 p.m. on September 18, 1987 and 9:30 a.m. on September 19, 1987. The victim’s body was found on her bed by officers of the Richmond Bureau of Police. She had been strangled by the use of a sock and vacuum cleaner hose, which had been assembled into what the Virginia Court called a ligature and ratchet-type device. The medical examiner determined that the ligature had been twisted two or three times, and the cause of death was ligature strangulation. The pressure exerted was so great that, in addition to cutting into Miss Davis’s neck muscles, larynx, and voice box, it had caused blood congestion in her head and a hemorrhage in one of her eyes. In addition her nose and mouth were bruised. Miss Davis’s hands were bound by the use of shoestrings, which were attached to the ligature device. 384 S.E.2d at 789.
Semen stains were found on the victim’s bedclothes. The presence of spermatozoa also was found when rectal and vaginal swabs of the victim were taken. In addition, when the victim’s pubic hair was combed, two hairs were recovered that did not belong to the victim. 384 S.E.2d at 789. The two hairs later were determined through forensic analysis to be “consistent with” Spencer’s underarm hair. 384 S.E.2d at 789. Further forensic analysis was completed on the semen stains on the victim’s bedclothes. The analysis revealed that the stains had been deposited by a secretor whose blood characteristics matched a group comprised of approximately thirteen percent of the population. Spencer’s blood and saliva samples revealed that he is a member of that group. 384 S.E.2d at 789.
Next, a sample of Spencer’s blood and the semen collected from the bedclothes were subjected to DNA analysis. The results of the DNA analysis, performed by Lifecodes Corporation, a private laboratory, established that the DNA molecules extracted from Spencer’s blood matched the DNA molecules extracted from the semen stains. Spencer is a black male, and the evidence adduced at trial showed that the statistical likelihood of finding duplication of Spencer’s particular DNA pattern in the population of members of the black race who live in North America is one in 705,000,000 (seven hundred five million). In addition, the evidence also showed that the number of black males living in North America was approximately 10,000,000 (ten million). 384 S.E.2d at 790.
On September 22, 1988 a Richmond jury found Spencer guilty of rape, burglary, and capital murder. The jury unanimously fixed Spencer’s punishment at death, which was affirmed on direct appeal. Spencer then filed a petition for habeas corpus with the state trial court, which was dismissed. He appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, but because his appeal was filed one day out of time, the Virginia Supreme Court refused the petition. Spencer then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court denied his petition. Spencer v. Murray, No. 3:91CV00391 (E.D.Va. April 30, 1992).
On appeal, Spencer raises essentially five issues1: (1) the DNA evidence in this case is unreliable; (2) defense counsel was denied an opportunity to adequately defend against the DNA evidence because the trial court denied a discovery request for Lifecodes’ worknotes and memoranda, the trial court refused to provide funds for an expert defense witness,2 and the prosecution did not reveal evidence of problems with Lifecodes’ testing methods; (3) the trial court should not have admitted the DNA evidence; (4) the prosecution improperly struck Miss Chrita Shelton from the jury for racially-motivated reasons as prohibited by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986); and (5) the future dangerousness aggravating factor in Virginia’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutionally vague.
* Spencer’s major attack was on the DNA testing. I’ve inserted photos of the same type DNA testing (electrophoresis, or gel testing) that Spencer claimed was faulty. These photos are mine and were not part of the appeal.
Spencer’s argument boils down to an assertion that the DNA results were flawed and he was wrongly convicted. This is a claim of factual innocence. The errors he points to–potential errors in the results of the DNA test–are errors of fact, not law.
…Specifically, Spencer points to a laundry list of problems that might have occurred with his DNA test, including:
1Bandshifting that may have occurred because the tests were not run on same gel;
DNA testing by electrophoresis (gel testing)
Weighing the agar gel.
Mixing the gel with water.
Gel in chamber.
Injecting DNA into the gel.
Attaching electrodes to the chamber.
Introducing electric current to the gel.
Completed gel is placed onto an illuminator for viewing.
Gel on illuminator.
*My thanks to Dr. Stephanie Smith for allowing me to hang out in her lab to take the above photos.
Completed gel showing DNA bands
Spencer’s claims against DNA continue:
2Cross-contamination or bacterial contamination of the samples because Lifecodes’ procedures do not guard against these threats;
3Invalidity because of the lack of data on the reliability of DNA testing of degraded forensic samples;
4Incorrect matching because visual inspection, rather than computer calculations, were used to declare a match;
5Invalidity that may have resulted from potentially poor quality control or proficiency standards;
6Impossibility of verifying results because Lifecodes did not record what voltage they applied to gel;
7Inability to know whether Lifecodes properly performed tests because there are no standards for licensure or required tests that labs must complete;
8Improper testimony at trial about the statistical likelihood of finding someone else with same DNA type because of potentially improper application of the product rule;
9Lack of validation studies to prove reliability of DNA testing in forensic setting and of using sperm to DNA type; and
10Possible inaccuracies resulting from Lifecodes’ use of certain probes
6Spencer repeatedly has urged, in his brief and at oral argument, that the main reason the DNA evidence in this case was found to be admissible is because it was “too new” to have been criticized, because the criticisms were published after his trial, and because Spencer was, according to counsel, the first person ever convicted with DNA evidence in Virginia
The Virginia State Supreme Court ruled that the DNA testing had been performed properly and denied Spencer’s appeal.