Virginia Killer Executed in Landmark DNA Case
by Brooke A. Masters, The Washington Post
James Earl Patterson, a Virginia killer who asked his lawyers not to appeal or request clemency, last night became the first inmate in the country to be executed based on evidence sent blindly to a state's criminal DNA database.
Patterson, 35, died by lethal injection at 9:10 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. It was Virginia's first execution since October and the 84th since capital punishment was restored in the state.
Patterson pleaded guilty to capital murder in 2000, after Prince George County investigators entered evidence from the 1987 rape and murder of Joyce S. Aldridge into Virginia's DNA data bank. They got a "cold hit" with Patterson's genetic material, whose DNA was added to the database in 1990 or 1991, while he served a 25-year sentence for a 1988 rape in Sussex. He would have been released in 2005 or sooner had the DNA not matched.
"It always played out in the back of my mind that [the evidence] could be put together . . . that it could come back to haunt me," Patterson said in an interview Wednesday.
In prison, Patterson said, he became a religious Christian, and he deeply regrets his violent past. "The crimes really tear at my heart," he said. "My prayers constantly go out to the family members of the victims."
The family of Aldridge, who was 56 when she was killed, declined an interview request made through the Virginia attorney general's office.
Virginia has long been a leader in the use of genetic material to solve crimes. The 1994 execution of Timothy W. Spencer was the first in the nation involving a killer convicted on the basis of DNA evidence, and the state's DNA database of nearly 177,000 convicted felons is one of the largest and oldest in the country.
As of this week, Virginia investigators had recorded 683 hits in the database, including more than 300 last year and 92 this year, said Robin D. Porter, deputy director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science.
The General Assembly this year passed a bill to extend the sampling to include people charged with violent felonies, rather than waiting until possible convictions.
DNA also has been used to clear six Virginia men convicted of crimes they did not commit -- most recently Marvin L. Anderson, who spent 15 years in prison for a 1982 rape. When he requested post-conviction DNA testing last year under a new Virginia law, the genetic material from the crime scene not only ruled him out but partially matched two other felons in the database.
Patterson, who got to know Anderson when both were incarcerated at the Southampton Correctional Center in Capron, Va., said both cases demonstrate the benefits of DNA.
"I applaud the science," Patterson said. "It's become a good thing. It has condemned people who needed to be condemned and released people who needed to be released.
"I worked beside Marvin Anderson for seven years, and I believed him," he added. "When I saw [his exoneration] on the news, I couldn't help but jump for joy and praise the Lord."
Patterson was 20 when he killed Aldridge, whom he had met briefly through one of her grown daughters. According to court documents, he told investigators that he forced his way into her home to steal money to buy drugs but became enraged when he learned she had only coins in her purse. He raped her and stabbed her 17 times.
A year later, he raped a woman who had given him a ride home from a party and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
"My particular vice was drugs and drinking and violence," he said. "It's been a learning experience, the last 14 years of incarceration. I've grown and come to know the Lord."
Despite his conversion and his interest in DNA, Patterson said he was still shocked and frightened when investigators came to see him. "When I saw the [police] badges come out, it literally took my breath away. The day of judgment had met me," he said.
He initially denied killing Aldridge but eventually admitted the crime, pleaded guilty and asked to be sentenced to death. On Wednesday, Patterson, a father of two girls, said he felt comfortable with his decision not to fight his execution.
"I feel at peace with my decision. It's either going slow or dying quickly. I'm ready to go," he said. "I could be running my head against the wall, bawling my eyes out, but it's not that way. I'm getting ready for the big transformation."