King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg showcases high-tech crime-fighting tools

May 1, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Investigators used saliva from a cigarette butt discarded at a murder scene to connect a suspect to the slaying. Recorded jailhouse phone conversations led prosecutors to convict a man for brutal acts of domestic violence. Cellphone data allowed police to trace gang members’ movements before and after a chaotic shooting at a crowded car show.

Dan Satterberg

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg delved into recent cases April 17 and outlined the forensic science tools investigators and prosecutors use to lock criminals behind bars.

In a talk given to the Rotary Club of Issaquah, Satterberg offered a presentation akin to “CSI: Issaquah” — down to using the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” theme music, The Who’s “Who Are You.”

“This has changed the way that we investigate cases. It has given us results that we never thought we’d be able to get to solve cold cases going way back,” he said to the Tibbetts Creek Manor audience. “It has in some ways made the job of the police investigator and the deputy prosecutor more complicated.”

The cigarette butt and a spent shell casing linked gang member Omar Norman to the October 2005 murder of Terrell Milam, a rival gang member.

“He threw the cigarette butt down and left the best evidence we could ever have to prove that he was on the scene,” Satterberg said. “So, one more reason smoking can be hazardous to your health.”

Norman is serving more than 50 years at the Washington State Penitentiary for the murder.

Investigators used fragments of genetic material to secure the conviction. Even the amount of DNA left behind on the lip of a bottle is enough for police to sample.

Investigators mix high-tech, low-tech

Satterberg said forensic science is especially useful in gang-related crimes, because evidence offers a tool for prosecutors to make a case, even if witnesses refuse to cooperate.

“Gang cases are notoriously difficult to put together,” he said. “If you had to have the testimony of a fellow gang member to convict their own gang member, forget it. You don’t have a case at all.”

Incriminating clues also come from recorded jailhouse phone conversations. Satterberg said the recordings aid prosecutors to prevent witness intimidation, especially in domestic violence cases.

“We always see the result of witness intimidation, which is, the victim will come in and say, ‘I just don’t want to prosecute’ and minimize it, ‘It didn’t really happen’ or ‘I was lying,’” Satterberg said.

Prosecutors said Jesse Manchego assaulted his wife and then dragged her through the woods. Later, in phone conversations from jail, he deployed charm and threats as intimidation tactics. Throughout the conversations, investigators listened to every word.

“It does take a lot of time to go back and listen to calls that are made,” Satterberg said. “You learn a lot more about defendants and their relationships with their girlfriends than you really want to know. But you also learn some powerful stuff.”

Manchego is serving a 90-month sentence at the state penitentiary.

Forensics advances raise costs, get results

Investigators used data from cellphones to determine the shooters’ identities at a June 2011 gang shooting at a Kent car show. In the melee, shooters injured 12 people.

Police used cellphone technology to determine locations of people involved in the incident before and after the shooting.

“Through forensic science, we were able to put together a very strong case about a crime that happened very quickly in the chaos of an open-air, drive-by shooting,” Satterberg said.

Otherwise, relying on witnesses could have stymied the high-profile case. Prosecutors later charged several people linked to the crime.

“It took a long time to put that case together, and if we had to use the testimony of other gang members, we never would have been able to get it together, because they’re inherently unreliable,” Satterberg said. “They won’t come to court and if they do, they’ll lie and they don’t care about it.”

The advances in forensic science come against a backdrop of lean budgets and staff reductions at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Still, the technology is a critical crime-fighting tool for investigators and prosecutors, Satterberg said.

“It creates expectations, it does drive costs, but it gets us results,” he added.

Issaquah Police Cmdr. Stan Conrad said the agency is a vital partner to the Issaquah Police Department.

“We work with them at least once a week, if not more often, on various investigations,” he said. “I know it’s frustrating for us, and it is for them, to have to do these things with fewer and fewer people and resources.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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