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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Skin Cells On Victim Did Not Belong To Masters

The first effort by prosecutors to try to identify skin cells left on murder victim Peggy Hettrick's clothing did not turn up the DNA of Tim Masters, the man convicted of the crime, according to a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report obtained by The Denver Post.

Instead, lab analysts found genetic traces from at least two other "male individuals" lining her underpants and shirt, but not enough to create a full profile or make conclusive comparisons with criminals in a nationwide databank.

The analysis, completed last week, does not exonerate Masters. Nor does it mean that the men's DNA was shed during the slaying — it could belong to boyfriends, for example.

It does provide another piece of evidence that could benefit Masters' bid for a new trial, according to the head of the country's largest forensic lab.

"This is usually the kind of information defense attorneys like to have and that prosecutors don't," said Mark Stolorow, forensic chief for Orchid-Cellmark. "These results fall into a gray category, ranging from exculpatory to neutral."

Fort Collins police and prosecutors never pursued the skin-cell testing, though the technology existed before Masters' 1999 trial. In recent years, the Larimer County district attorney also unsuccessfully fought efforts by Masters to obtain the tests. Earlier this year, a Holland forensic lab enlisted by Masters' new attorneys disclosed that it could find none of his genetic fingerprints on her clothing.

A special prosecution team from Adams County, appointed to examine Masters' post-conviction appeals after the Larimer DA recused himself from the case, opted to have the CBI perform similar tests.

But Adams DA Don Quick said he was not ready to determine what the results mean, saying the mystery may only deepen.

"The presence of evidence tells you a lot; the absence only tells you so much," Quick said, interpreting the lab report.

The analysis does not necessarily prove that Masters was not at the crime scene, he said. But he will factor it into his analysis of whether enough evidence exists to support Masters' original conviction, the DA said.

Same results as Dutch lab's

Often killers leave skin cells behind after forceful touching or grabbing, DNA analyses have shown. In February 1987, Hettrick's killer or killers might have grabbed her clothing to pull her body 100 feet into a south Fort Collins field — and to remove her underpants and bra before sexually mutilating her.

The fact that the CBI met with similar results as the Holland lab helps prove Masters isn't guilty, says his attorney, David Wymore.

"The bottom line is that they don't find Tim anywhere on her clothing, especially at the points where the killer would have touched her," Wymore said.

Authorities have never found physical evidence tying Masters to the 1987 crime, basing their case on psychological interpretations of his violent writings as a 15-year-old. Judge Joe Weatherby, who is presiding over Masters' motions for a new trial, will determine whether the CBI lab report supports his claim of innocence.

And should Masters be granted a new trial, the absence of his skin-cell DNA on Hettrick's body, which was never mentioned at his first trial, could be valuable in his defense, Stolorow said.

"These are male profiles, and they're not Tim Masters," said Stolorow, who has been following the case developments.

New material at odds

Also Wednesday, Masters' lawyers filed a court pleading asking Judge Weatherby to prevent the original-case prosecutors from testifying about whether they were aware of evidence that was not provided to the original defense or their reasons for not providing evidence.

In recent weeks, Masters' lawyers have discovered previously undisclosed materials, including the lead detective's notes, in which experts appear to contradict portions of the prosecution's case.

Quick's team has planned to put those authorities on the stand so that they can explain their handling of the discovery process. But Masters' attorneys say the only relevant issue at this stage in the legal proceedings is whether the material should have been disclosed under constitutional law.

Quick says they shouldn't be trying to bar the public from understanding why they made their decisions.

"The public deserves to know the truth as to what happened and why at the trial," Quick said. "For weeks, the defense has solicited the trial defense attorney's version of what was supplied and why.

"They have made numerous allegations against the trial prosecutors. Now, when it is time for the prosecutor to answer those charges, they want to gag them?"

The Denver Post

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