DNA techology proves pivotal as man pleads guilty to 1992 homicide

Mini-STR testing, uses short pieces of known DNA called primers to identify individual genetic profiles on shorter, degraded DNA fragments


By Nicole Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — A trial that would have determined the outcome of a 20-yearold Milwaukee County murder case ended abruptly Wednesday afternoon when the defendant pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless homicide.

Cary Lee Holmes now faces up to 20 years in prison for killing a Milwaukee man in 1992.

Norm Gahn, one of two prosecutors on the trial and a pioneer in charging cold cases based on DNA evidence, said Wednesday the case would have been the first in Milwaukee County and likely the state to present results from a DNA analysis technology used specifically for degraded samples as evidence in court.

The DNA procedure, mini-STR testing, uses short pieces of known DNA called primers — they are smaller than those used in traditional analysis — to identify individual genetic profiles on shorter, degraded DNA fragments. It then reproduces the fragments in great quantities for the more widely used DNA sequencing.

"This is a validated, accepted technology for use" in cold cases, said Lisa Schade, the director of human identification business at Life Technologies, which has been manufacturing the mini-STR test since 2007.

The prosecution had planned to use the test to try to convict Holmes, who had pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder based on attempted armed robbery when his trial began Monday. If he had been convicted under that charge, he would have faced up to 30 years in prison, in accordance to laws in place at the time of the homicide.

On the evening of Feb. 9, 1992, the victim, Thomas Recore, and his wife, Patricia, were returning from an afternoon at Potawatomi Bingo Casino and were entering their Milwaukee home when Holmes tried to force his way in, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams said Tuesday in his opening statement.

Recore, who had been walking behind his wife of almost 33 years, struggled with the robber.

"Oh God, not again," Patricia Recore testified Tuesday, recalling what her husband had said in reference to an earlier attempted robbery.

As he tried to dislodge the weapon from the robber's hand, she testified, he instructed Patricia Recore to fetch his own gun.

She heard at least three gunshots while retrieving and loading her husband's gun. When she returned to the side door, she found her husband lying in the doorway, and she heard him exhale for the final time.

"His last breath - you don't forget that," she testified Tuesday. Her husband had bled to death through wounds in his right chest and left hand. He was 55.

Recore later discovered that the robber also had shot to death her golden retriever.

Holmes was arrested in October 1992 on allegations of committing several similar robberies, but prosecutors did not have enough evidence to connect him to Recore's death.

Although Wisconsin crime solvers were not yet using DNA profiling in 1992, an autopsy preserved fingernail clippings from Recore's body. Investigators found DNA from two people but were unable to determine to whom the major contributor of DNA was until Sept. 7, 2011, when it was entered into a DNA index system.

Milwaukee police detectives then reopened the cold case, sending the clippings to the State Crime Laboratory, which matched the degraded DNA extracted with Holmes' DNA profile, Williams told jurors. The crime lab then sent the DNA sample to Sorenson Forensics, which confirmed the results with mini-STR testing, Williams said.

Defense Attorney Patrick Earle said in his opening statement that the defense would not dispute that DNA can be mapped out.

"What we're going to ask the experts questions about is the application of that solid science to degraded DNA 20 years down the road," Earle said.

Mini-STR test kits are "not as tried and true as the normal STR analysis, but they're based on the same principles. There's no reason why they shouldn't be accurate," said Michael Cox, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a forensic DNA analysis expert.

Holmes will appear in court for sentencing Tuesday.

Copyright 2012, Journal Sentinel Inc. 

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