Legacy of Hope: Virginia’s DNA database, the first in the nation, is created as a direct result of the South Side Strangler case 

click to enlarge Paul Ferrara

Paul Ferrara

Editor's note: This feature is the ninth installment of a 10-part series on the landmark criminal justice case of the South Side Strangler, which marked the nation's first use of DNA to catch a killer. Listen to the podcast in the player above, or click here to subscribe to episodes on Apple Podcasts or Google Plus. And here is a direct link for people with iPhones and iPads to subscribe on iTunes. To read the previous installments, visit styleweekly.com/SouthernNightmare.

In March 1989 Debbie Smith was cleaning up around her Williamsburg home when she noticed her clothes dryer wasn't working properly. So she went outside to check on the exhaust vent.

Debbie's husband, Rob, a local police officer, was upstairs sleeping. He had been on duty for 36 hours straight when he hit the bed and was out for the count.

"As a police officer's wife, I knew you leave your doors locked. But I thought I'll just leave it unlocked for a few minutes when I came back in from checking the exhaust vent because I thought I will grab the trash and just come right back out," Smith recalls. "But before I could come back out.… a masked stranger came in that door, forcibly took me out of my home to the woods behind my house where he robbed and repeatedly raped me."

When the ordeal had ended, the masked attacker marched the blindfolded Smith out of the woods — telling her he would kill her and her family if she told anyone.

"Then as I walked further he said, 'And lady? … Lock your doors,' and those words sent chills up my spine and they do to this day."

Smith woke her husband, who took her to a hospital, where doctors collected DNA evidence from the rape.

In the years afterward, Smith says, "I became very suicidal. I didn't want to live. In fact, I thought that him leaving me alive, it was part of the cruel punishment, because now I had to live with this every day. I had to remember every detail, every day."

She also grappled with fear that he would come back and harm her children.

On July 26, 1995, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science found a DNA match for the man who raped Debbie Smith in its criminal justice DNA databank of samples collected from criminal offenders. The first such database created in the nation, it was spearheaded by the late Paul Ferrara, who, as the department's director, also was instrumental in the establishment of the Combined DNA Index System, the nationwide law enforcement DNA database network. Ferrara used the successful capital murder prosecutions of South Side Strangler serial killer Timothy Spencer as the argument for establishing the database when he sought funding for it from the Virginia General Assembly in 1989.

"If there had been a DNA databank at the time Spencer was committing his heinous acts … he would have been identified even earlier before some of these other crimes," Ferrara said in a 1994 interview with WRVA 1140 AM.

Since its creation, Virginia's database has yielded more than 12,000 DNA matches linking criminals to crimes. Nationally, the system has produced in excess of 422,000 DNA matches, assisting in more than 406,000 criminal investigations across the nation.

"Dr. Ferrara was a tremendous influence in the forensic science world," says Ken Melson, the former acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. "His laboratory was just very advanced and proactive in all sorts of things."

In 2004, after years of work by Ferrara and Smith, Congress passed the Debbie Smith Act, which strengthened the national law enforcement DNA database and provided funding to reduce the backlog of untested DNA evidence. The act was reauthorized in 2008 and 2014.

"He was relentless on trying to make sure that this law got passed and he was trying to make sure that people understood how important DNA is," says Smith, who today works as the founder and chief executive of Hope Exists After Rape Trauma. The nonprofit organization, known as HEART, advocates for and supports victims of rape and sexual assault.

"I saw him just about three months before he died," remembers Smith, "and one of the last things he said was, 'You keep fighting for this because DNA is worth this fight.'"

Paul Ferrara died of brain cancer at 68 in 2011. S


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