WestViews: Murder case stayed cold for too long

May 13, 2013 

Boise police announced Wednesday that charges have been filed in the 1998 rape and murder of Kay Lynn Jackson.

MURDER CASE STAYED COLD FOR TOO LONG

Lewiston Tribune

For 15 years, it was a mystery.

Who raped and killed 22-year-old Kay Lynn Jackson as she walked to church in Boise on Palm Sunday, April 5, 1998?

A possible answer finally came when Idaho State Police got a match between DNA found at the crime scene and that of an Idaho state prison inmate, 40-year-old Patrick Jon Zacharias, who has been serving a life sentence for lewd conduct with a girl younger than 11.

A grand jury indicted Zacharias on charges of rape and first-degree murder.

There's just one thing wrong with this kumbayah moment.

Police could have broken this case years earlier. The only thing standing in their way was Idaho's tightfisted ways.

Since 1996, anyone convicted of some offenses - including lewd conduct with a minor - has had to provide a DNA sample to be stored in local and national databases.

And Zacharias complied when he entered state prison in 2007.

His sample lay unprocessed within a growing backlog at the state crime lab. By 2010, the backlog stretched four years and included 6,000 DNA samples.

There's no mystery here. You get what you pay for. Idaho has been unwilling to pay for a current DNA database.

Nobody gets wealthy working for the state of Idaho, but scientists who stayed long enough at the state lab to get certification and experience could move on for more lucrative jobs in other states or in the private sector. The situation was aggravated when disclosures about mishandled drug samples at a Pocatello lab led to additional dismissals.

Five years ago, the lab said it needed $780,000 to hire eight more scientists to handle its work. Gov. Butch Otter recommended funding for six. Lawmakers whittled it down to $239,000 to pay for three.

But that was the eve of the Great Recession. Soon, the state wasn't creating new jobs - it was eliminating them.

Year after year, Otter insisted on balancing the budget through cuts.

Even if the alternative to more cuts was a cigarette tax increase or updating Idaho's beer and wine taxes, the answer was no.

In fact, the governor pushed in the opposite direction. He deliberately low-balled tax revenue projections, which triggered deeper cuts.

When the money began flowing back into state coffers, Otter preferred spending it on tax cuts rather than restoring budgets.

So the case languished until the feds stepped in. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and a DNA backlog reduction grant funneled more money into personnel, equipment and supplies for the DNA database.

Lawmakers followed up in the state budget that began July 1, 2012, by adding a $334,000 boost from the state. The federal funds were temporary; the state funding is permanent.

So the lab expects to enter the 6,000 older DNA samples - plus 3,000 collected since October 2010 - into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, database by this summer.

That's how the lab caught up with Zacharias.

But for Jackson's parents and family, closure could have come years sooner.

Boise Police Detective Mark Ayotte, who kept the Jackson case files on his desk, could have wasted less time chasing down dead ends. Ayotte said more than 1,000 leads came up empty.

And what of Zacharias? What if the prison stretch he began in 2007 had ended before the criminal lab processed his DNA sample and entered it into the national database? Would he have been on the streets?

For Idaho, scrimping on forensics is relatively recent. A generation ago, Idaho and a few Western states led the nation by building a computerized database of fingerprint identification.

Under Otter, there has been a lot of talk about the proper role of government. Doesn't that include adequately funding the means to track down and prosecute criminals?

Also on Otter's watch, there have been many promises made about holding government accountable.

So who tells Jackson's family why they waited longer than necessary?

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