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DNA solves 13-year-old cold case murder mystery

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Science is changing the way police officers solve cases that have remained a mystery for several years, particularly in high profile murder cases where DNA evidence was hard to obtain.

Putting up a desperate fight for her life 13 years ago, a 10-year-old girl named Anna Palmer was attacked and killed outside her front door. As she fought off her attacker, Palmer left several clues about her killer, but detectives lacked the science necessary to make the connection.

The heinous crime terrorized the Salt Lake community after Palmer's mother found her dead on the front porch of the home, with five stab wounds to the throat and a severely beaten body. One of the stab wounds severed Palmer's spinal cord.

"It was such a hole in the neighborhood to have her be gone," said neighbor Rebecca Sterling. "(It was) lots of police all night long. It was like midday ‘cause of the lights and helicopters."

Following the murder, detectives had little to work with: there were no witnesses, no obvious evidence and no apparent suspects.

"It shocked the conscious of our community," said Salt Lake district attorney Sim Gill. "It made everybody feel that if you couldn't feel safe literally in your front yard, then where could you be safe?"

It shocked the conscious of our community. It made everybody feel that if you couldn't feel safe literally in your front yard, then where could you be safe?

–Sim Gill

For years, the question lingered over the community as detectives struggled to find who killed the young girl, but the mystery remained.

However, in 2009, detectives turned to Sorenson Forensics to examine evidence in the case, including clothes and body swabs. But it was another piece of evidence not typically analyzed in the past that would give detective the break they needed.

"We determined that fingernails from the victim would be something that might yield probative results, and we took them into the lab and tested them," said Dan Hellwig of Sorenson Forensics.

Using visible and alternative light sources, DNS analysts looked at the clippings and swabbed areas for DNA that didn't belong to Palmer. As a result of their new efforts, analysts got a hit.

The discovered DNA belonged to the man Matthew Breck, who at the time of Palmer's murder lived only a block away.

When prosecutors charged him in 2010, he was already serving a 10-year sentence in Idaho for a sex-related crime involving a child.

"Science brought us together where time was otherwise running out for us," Gill said.

Science and a resilient little girl, who in an attempt to fight back her attacker, captured the key evidence -- Breck's skin cells -- under her nails. The evidence obtained was minute, but indisputable.


"It was through science that this poor girl, who was tragically and horrifically murdered in our community, was able to basically point to her killer," Gill said.

In August of 2011, Breck pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and will spend the rest of his life in prison. Had the evidence not come forward, Breck would have been released from his prior Idaho sentence in two years.

"The most important thing was that justice was done and I think the fact that the person responsible is being held accountable," said Palmer's mother Nancy Palmer.

Justice was served for a little girl who waited more than a decade for it.

"Because she had such a playful, child-like spirit about her, and it was so quick, I think she remained until justice was served," Sterling said.

Science continues to help solve and prosecute cold cases similar to Plamer's murder every day. Sorenson Forensics has helped with 150 cases from about 24 agencies. About 60 of them have either been solved or are going through the court system.



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