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Experts to present DNA in Coe trial

Fri., Oct. 3, 2008

Judge says psychologist cannot submit evidence

A positive DNA sample from the woman whose South Hill rape sent Kevin Coe to prison for 25 years must be introduced by DNA experts and not by a psychologist who will testify for the state that Coe has a mental illness, a Spokane judge ruled Thursday in Coe’s civil commitment trial.

Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor’s ruling was a victory for the defense, which had sought to bar Dr. Amy Phenix from referring to the DNA sample obtained after the October 1980 rape of Julie Harmia. The sample matches Coe’s DNA, but the defense wants to tell the jury about chain-of-custody problems with the old rape slide.

“I feel DNA is going to mean a lot to the jury, and it needs to be treated as substantive evidence. The fact Dr. Phenix says she relies on DNA and not to let the defense bring up these problems with it would be totally unfair to (Coe),” O’Connor said.

Most of Thursday’s testimony involved sparring between Coe’s lawyers and the state about a large database, the Homicide Investigation Tracking System used by law enforcement and prosecutors to track habits of rapists.

Information on the series of rapes in Spokane in the 1970s and ’80s was fed into the database of 8,100 rape victims in 2006 when the state was preparing its petition to confine Coe as a violent sexual predator. The query narrowed the suspect to a white male who raped women he didn’t know outdoors, threatened to use a knife and used force during the assaults.

Those are methods used by Coe, HITS crime investigator Tamara Matheny of the Washington attorney general’s office testified.

The initial data run led to 26 suspected victims – 0.3 percent of the total cases in the database – and included Harmia, the woman whose first-degree rape conviction against Coe withstood a series of appeals.

A later data run with more questions about the weapon used identified 13 Spokane County victims, including Harmia, and one victim from another county.

Matheny said she ran the queries as part of the state’s effort to commit Coe to a state mental facility.

Tim Trageser, a lawyer for Coe, pressed Matheny on her biases, suggesting she was prejudiced against Coe because in a college class she’d read the 1983 book “Son: A Psychopath and His Victims” about the South Hill rapes, and she was skewing the data in an effort to cherry-pick victims with rapes similar to Harmia’s.

“I believe I can code a case without bias,” Matheny replied.

The attorney general’s office provided the HITS team the data points it wanted to search: the rapist’s race and sex, whether it was an outdoor crime scene, if it was a stranger rape, whether the rape took place in the vicinity of where the woman was first attacked, whether a weapon was used or threatened and whether it was a knife.

HITS maintains two databases, one for homicides and the other for sexual assaults. The sexual assault database contains information on thousands of sexual assaults, most occurring since 1990. Some of the cases are from other states and Canada.

Investigators use a pre-printed form to break down each rape case and code it for entry. Law enforcement investigators in Spokane can query the database after a rape and generate a list of assaults with similar patterns.

The database was used to analyze the Oct. 23, 1980, rape of Harmia.

Coe’s lawyers initially tried to prevent Matheny from testifying, saying she’d used some information from hypnotized victims who said Coe was their attacker. The Washington Supreme Court in 1984 tossed out three of the original four rape convictions against Coe because of the police hypnosis and reversed two of three convictions on the same issue in 1988 after Coe’s second trial.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor ruled Matheny could testify, and any criticisms of the HITS methodology could be handled in cross-examination.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5464 or karend@


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