The first US ‘DNA’ murder conviction twenty-five years on

Twenty-five years ago today, serial killer Timothy Wilson Spencer became the first man in America to be convicted of murder on DNA evidence.

Timothy Wilson Spencer

Although Timothy Wilson Spencer is nowhere near as notorious as Ted Bundy, like him he holds a unique place in the annals of crime, for while the crimes of the latter led to the coining of the phrase serial killer, Spencer was the first person in the USA to be convicted of murder by DNA evidence, which was then barely known, having been used to convict double murderer Colin Pitchfork in the UK.

The similarity does not end there, because as in the Pitchfork case someone else confessed to one of the murders he committed. Pitchfork murdered two teenage girls: Lynda Mann in November 1983 and Dawn Ashworth in July 1986; both were raped and strangled. On August 8, 1986, seventeen year old Richard Buckland was arrested for the Ashworth murder purely because he showed what the police thought was an unnatural interest in it. He confessed under interrogation, but was cleared later that year when DNA evidence ruled him out.

Pitchfork was convicted of both murders, and in January 1988 he was given the mandatory life sentence.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Southside Strangler claimed what was then believed to be his first victim on September 18, 1987; Debbie Dudley Davis was murdered in her own home. Three more females were murdered in quick succession: Dr Susan Hellams; the youngest victim teenager Diane Cho; and Susan Tucker, who was 44. The details of these murders need not be discussed here, suffice it to say they were particularly horrific sex crimes.

The similarity of these four murders was striking, even though the last victim was murdered in Arlington, which is around a hundred miles from Richmond. However, there was one disturbing anomaly, in 1984, a woman named Carol Hamm had been murdered in the same fashion, and David Vasquez had been convicted of her murder on what was apparently compelling evidence, including a confession. There was of course a possibility that Vasquez had had an accomplice, but the detective assigned to these murders thought not. Joe Horgas has been described as obsessive – in the nicest possible way – and not only did he rule out the possibility of an accomplice but he said he didn’t believe Vasquez knew a thing about the murder of Carol Hamm either. To put it euphemistically, Vasquez had mental health issues.

It was Horgas who first fingered Spencer for the other murders, he was a petty criminal with a history of burglaries, and he had been in both Richmond and Arlington at the material times.

After his arrest, the forensic evidence looked compelling, but the DNA evidence in particular was damning. Timothy Wilson Spencer was tried initially for the murder of Susan Tucker; rape and burglary were added to the indictment, but these were secondary issues. The trial opened in Arlington on July 11, 1988; he was convicted and sentenced to death on July 16.

He was later tried for the other murders and convicted, though not for the murder of Carol Hamm, but David Vasquez was eventually pardoned for this murder and paid compensation for his time behind bars.

After the usual specious appeals, his time ran out. Timothy Wilson Spencer was executed April 27, 1994. A short documentary about the case of the Southside Strangler is currently available on YouTube.

[The above article was first published July 16, 2013.]

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