On January 22, 1979, Robert John Reiding found his wife, Debra Sue, dead in their Austin home. The 18-year-old newlywed had been sexually assaulted and murdered in the couple’s bedroom, and the case went unsolved for nearly 40 years. In May 2018, with the aid of new forensic evidence, police were finally able to make an arrest.
A 40-Year Cold Case
When Debra Sue was murdered in 1979, Michael Anthony Galvan, a co-worker of Sue’s, became a police suspect, but the technology did not exist to test DNA and use it in criminal investigations. Without genetic evidence tying him to the scene, Galvan was never arrested, and the case went cold.
Nearly four decades later, advances in DNA technology made it possible to test a semen stain from Debra Sue’s robe. The sample matched Galvan’s DNA, and authorities were finally able to arrest the 64-year-old barber to charge him with sexual assault and murder.
DNA and Criminology
While DNA evidence is now accepted in courtrooms around the world, it wasn’t used in criminal cases until 1986. Genetic fingerprinting was used in the U.K. to tie Colin Pitchfork to two rapes and murders in 1983 and 1986; however, he wasn’t convicted until 1987, when he admitted his own involvement in the crimes.
In the first American conviction secured using DNA evidence, semen collected at a crime scene was used to convict Tommie Lee Andrews of rape in 1987.
Since those benchmark cases, DNA evidence has become a crucial element in the conviction of countless criminals. Conversely, organizations like The Innocence Project have used DNA to exonerate people falsely convicted of crimes.
When DNA evidence is collected, it is entered into CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. Law enforcement agencies can then run a suspect’s DNA against the database to see if they correspond to any other crimes, either solved or unsolved. As of April 2018, CODIS contained over 13 million offender profiles, 3 million arrest profiles, and 850,000 forensic profiles and has assisted with over 400,000 investigations.
Advances in DNA technology and the widespread use of genetic databases like CODIS are helping to solve an increasing number of cold cases like Debra Sue’s. In May of 2018, California closed an average of one cold case per day. For families like the Reidings, DNA convictions bring them one step closer to emotional closure. For law enforcement and prosecutors, DNA evidence means putting more criminals like Michael Galvan in prison.