Dog's Dna May Be Key In Murder Trial -- Evidence Likely To Set Court Precedent

For the first time in King County - and possibly the country - DNA from a dog may be used as evidence in a murder trial.

King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones has given preliminary approval for prosecutors to admit DNA blood tests from a pit bull that was shot and killed - along with its two owners - at a South Seattle house in 1996.

Prosecutors say the dog's DNA is crucial to their case.

Except for identical twins, no two people have the same genetic fingerprint that's found in the DNA in every cell of their bodies. Increasingly, courts are using DNA tests in criminal trials as evidence to link defendants to crime scenes or victims through semen, blood, hair, saliva or other biological traces.

In the case involving the pit bull, Timothy Bradshaw and Greg Jackson, both senior deputy prosecutors, say two men they've charged in the slayings had the dog's blood on their jackets - evidence that places both men at the scene of the killings.

According to Bradshaw, a California-based company - PE AgGen - extracted bloodstains from 10 spots on the two jackets and matched them with blood from the pit bull.

The test showed there was only one chance in 350 million that the blood was not the dog's, Bradshaw said, adding that in the past four years, the company has done DNA tests for more than 3,000 other dogs, mostly show dogs and purebreds.

`The most objective evidence'

"I think it (the dog DNA) is extremely relevant to our case," Bradshaw said. "It's the most probative evidence and the most objective evidence that the defendants were present while the crime was committed."

But attorney Pete Connick, who represents defendant George Tuilefano, opposes having the dog's blood test admitted as evidence.

Connick says he has asked Jones to reconsider his decision to allow it at trial. No date has been set to hear that request.

"The potential abuse of DNA evidence in this case is extreme," Connick said. He further contends that the dog's blood is irrelevant to his client.

"The dog's blood is on clothing unrelated to my client," Connick said. "My client was not wearing a jacket."

Bradshaw plans to challenge Connick on that issue during the trial.

"We will attempt to put the jacket on Mr. Connick's client," he said.

The dog, a pit-bull mix named Chief, died 30 hours after being shot repeatedly at a home in South Park on Dec. 9, 1996. Chief's owners, Jay Johnson, 22, and Raquel Rivera, 20, died at the scene from gunshot wounds.

Prosecutors say the men accused of the killings - Tuilefano and Kenneth Leuluaialii - kicked down the door of the house after Johnson refused to sell them marijuana, then shot the dog in the throat and jaw before shooting Johnson in the leg. After running to a rear bedroom, Johnson was shot three more times.

Rivera was shot repeatedly in the face and neck as she lay on the bed.

Life in prison if convicted

Leuluaialii, 22, is charged with two counts of aggravated-first-degree murder and one count of second-degree animal cruelty. If convicted of the murder charges, he could receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty.

Tuilefano, 24, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree animal cruelty. If convicted, he could receive at least 40 years in prison.

Bradshaw said that when the trial begins in June, it will likely be the first time in the state that dog DNA is used as evidence against defendants in a criminal case.

Joy Halverson, senior scientist at PE AgGen, said cat DNA was used in a criminal case in Canada, but she thinks this will be the first time DNA from a dog has been used in the United States.

Ronald K. Fitten's phone message number is 206-464-3251. His e-mail address is: ronf-new@seatimes.