A defense attorney questioned DNA expert David Stockwell in a preliminary hearing on Friday about whether the evidence actually places John Crane Jr. at the Richmond High School courtyard where police say a student was raped and beaten in October 2009.
In Contra Costa County Superior Court on Wednesday, Stockwell testified that sperm cell DNA found on the victim and at the scene closely matched the profiles of Crane, Manuel Ortega, an unidentified male, and possibly Marcelles Peter. Non-sperm cell DNA found on a discarded condom wrapper matched the profile of Jose Montano, Stockwell said.
Crane, Ortega, Peter, and Montano are four of seven defendants charged in the case. But in the hearing’s 18 days, no witness has testified that Crane was seen in the courtyard at Richmond High School.
Stockwell conceded that of the hundreds of cases he’s been a part of, “this is the most complex case I have ever worked.” While Stockwell testified he is confident in his findings, he did agree with defense attorneys that the case presents the additional challenge of identifying people from DNA samples in which a number of profiles were mixed together and the victim had no recollection of the assault.
“It’s like going into a dark room if you will, and I’m here to provide the light that will help glean what’s in that room,” said Stockwell.
Dustin Gordon, representing Crane—the defendant most implicated by the DNA evidence—tried to float an alternative narrative by Stockwell.
Gordon raised the possibility that Crane—or someone matching his profile—had unprotected sex with the victim hours before anyone else had sexual contact with her. He asked whether it were possible that another person transferred Crane’s semen to items like the walkie-talkie. Gordon also asked if the semen matching Crane’s profile could turn up on swabs taken from the girl’s body at a later time.
Stockwell testified that both were possible but it depended on the length of time and whether the girl had cleaned herself.
As Gordon continued his line of questioning, District Attorney Dara Cashman objected and the judge quickly sustained.
“It’s a theoretical issue,” Judge Gregory Caskey told Gordon. “Absent some kind of direct testimony to support that theory it is just a theory.”
Gordon argued that since no witnesses placed his client at the scene, it was a reasonable interpretation from the evidence presented by the DA. Judge Caskey disagreed and indicated that the questioning was unfairly prejudicial.
The exchange provides insight into Gordon’s defense strategy should Crane go to trial. Gordon’s line of questioning suggests he may argue that Crane was never at Richmond High and that he had sex with the victim sometime before the assault took place.
Police testified earlier that when they showed a picture of Crane to the girl, she said she had never seen him before.
Crane was arrested after a DNA profile from the scene was entered into a database and came up as a match.
Police have described Crane as an ex-con with a record of violent crime. Attorney Collin Cooper, who has represented Crane in the past and is a law partner of Crane’s current attorney, told Richmond Confidential in October that Crane has never spent time in prison, and his only prior offense was a pleaded-out drug charge. Both accounts appear inaccurate.
A record check of Crane’s criminal history in Contra Costa County revealed Crane is indeed a convicted felon, but there is no evidence of violence.
Crane had a felony drug possession charge dismissed in 1990 after completing a diversion program. In 1994, Crane was convicted for driving recklessly while evading a peace officer. He entered a work program in lieu of serving time. In 2002, Crane was sentenced and served 365 days for four felony counts of the sale or transport of drugs.
Crane’s DNA was likely entered into the Combined DNA Index System—a database funded by the FBI—sometime after the 2002 felony conviction.
Since November 2004 authorities have been allowed to collect DNA from anyone convicted of a felony offense. State law allows authorities to collect DNA from felons convicted before November 2004 if they are in custody, on probation, or on parole.
In addition to being jailed for 365 days, Crane was given five years probation—thus qualifying him for DNA collection.
Since 2009, adults arrested—not just convicted—for any felony offense are subject to DNA collection.
Criminal checks in Contra Costa County for the other defendants were clear except for Manuel Ortega, who was charged last July with vandalism and the unlawful possession of a weapon. Three weeks before the assault of the Richmond High student, Ortega was also charged with receiving stolen property. All three misdemeanor charges are still pending.
The preliminary hearing will continue on Monday at 9 a.m. with the DA’s final witness, Sgt. Lori Curran—the lead investigator for the case—in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez.