In Our View: The Power of DNA

Two old cases are back under microscopes, thanks to advances in forensic science

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Because DNA keeps popping up in headlines about old criminal cases, it might seem like “genetic fingerprinting” is cutting-edge forensic science. Perhaps the initials stand for Dynamic New Analysis? Truth is, DNA testing has been helping courts distinguish bad guys from good guys for more than two decades. Two old criminal cases recently regained the public’s attention in the Pacific Northwest, and we have our old friend DNA testing to thank for the interesting stories.

One of these cases is of particular interest here in Southwest Washington, where the legend of D.B. Cooper lives on almost 40 years after he hijacked an airplane on a flight between Portland and Seattle on Nov. 24, 1971. Adding to the legend: It remains the only unsolved airline hijacking in the nation. FBI officials had hoped to use DNA testing to link the crime to one Lynn Doyle Cooper, who records show died in 1999 and is buried near Bend, Ore. His niece, Marla Cooper of Oklahoma City, has said she believes her uncle committed the crime, and the FBI ran DNA tests on evidence provided by the family and evidence retrieved from the Boeing 727.

Alas, FBI Special Agent Fred Gutt on Monday said the testing failed to link Lynn Doyle Cooper to a necktie left behind on the plane. So the legend will live on!

But for how long? No one knows because Gutt also pointed out that the testing also did not rule out the deceased suspect. He said investigators aren’t sure if the DNA on the tie is that of the hijacker because there are three different DNA samples on the necktie and investigators are unsure where the hijacker got the tie.

Aha! So Marla’s uncle might still be the real D.B. Cooper! Well, not so fast. The FBI is working with the family, trying to obtain other DNA samples from a man who died 12 years ago.

Bottom line: Folks are learning more about the legend, thanks to the modern wonders of DNA, but not enough to solve the mystery.

Speaking of which, there’s an even more tantalizing local connection, as if finding part of the missing money in the Columbia River years ago and the lingering belief that Cooper bailed out of the airplane over north Clark County or Cowlitz County is not tantalizing enough. As Paris Achen reported in Friday’s Columbian, a plywood mill worker named Lynn D. Cooper lived on Unander Avenue in the Fruit Valley neighborhood in 1969 and 1970.

Aha! Legend solved! Well, not exactly. Little more is known about the Fruit Valley Cooper guy. Longtime neighborhood residents, and a former worker at the plywood mill don’t remember him.

The second Northwest-related criminal case that was linked recently to DNA testing involves Ted Bundy, who was executed in Florida in 1989 after being convicted of killing two sorority sisters and a 12-year-old girl. Bundy, who confessed to killing 30 women, was a Tacoma teenager in 1961 when an 8-year-old girl disappeared and was never found. According to The News Tribune of Tacoma, Bundy for years was linked to the case because he “frequently visited an uncle who lived in the (girl’s) neighborhood.”

So, Bundy’s DNA profile has been added to a national database where it can be compared to evidence gained from the 1961 crime. Only recently was Bundy’s DNA profile determined by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to be complete enough to upload into the national database. That testing will take a couple of months.

Remember, DNA evidence also helps determine who did NOT commit a crime. Just ask Alan Northrop, who served 17 years in prison before a Clark County judge in 2010 vacated his convictions for rape, kidnapping and burglary, based on DNA testing.

Some day, perhaps, we’ll learn more about D.B. Cooper and Ted Bundy, too.