TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — From 2016 to 2019, the state of Florida worked to process and log thousands of sexual assault kits across the state. Now, it appears the effort has helped solve another cold case, this time the 1983 murder of an 11-year-old girl in St. Lucie County.
In 2015, the Florida Legislature directed the state’s Department of Law Enforcement to find out how many untested rape kits were in storage at local law enforcement agencies, and create a plan to test them all.
The project was finished in September 2019. FDLE reported the effort processed more than 8,000 evidence kits with almost 2,000 matches in the Combined DNA Index System. CODIS is used by federal, state and local law enforcement to compare genetic evidence profiles electronically, and help link crimes to known offenders in the database.
Enter the sexual assault and murder of Lora Ann Huizar, of St. Lucie County, and former deputy James Howard Harrison. On Nov. 6, 1983, Huizar was raped and killed. Deputy Harrison was employed by SLCSO at the time. According to witness reports, a uniformed patrol deputy saw Huizar walking home when she disappeared.
Law enforcement officers confirmed that deputy was Harrison. Her body was found three days later in a drainage ditch. Deputies said they believed Harrison had placed Huizar’s body in the ditch to destroy physical evidence.
Still, officers remain convinced Harrison was the killer. During his career, deputies said Harrison had a “pattern of inappropriate behavior involving juvenile females.”
Harrison didn’t remain employed by SLCSO for long, and over the course of his decades-long career in law enforcement, he worked for 10 separate law enforcement agencies across the state of Florida. He died in 2008. After DNA evidence was tested again, cold-case detectives exhumed Harrison’s body to test his DNA against what was in the Huizar evidence, but could not make the comparison as a result of the body’s degradation.
The Huizar case is just one example of genetic evidence used later to solve cold cases. In July 2020, a man’s head was found by a jogger near 38th Avenue South. A year later, DNA evidence helped police identify the victim as Donald Edward Coston, an 80-year-old man.
Also in Pinellas County, a November 1999 Dunedin sexual battery case was solved after DNA testing led detectives to arrest Gregory Thompson, 59, for assaulting an at-the-time 30-year-old woman at her home, after hiding inside and threatening her with a knife.
Genetic evidence and DNA testing has helped law enforcement officers solve cold cases and catch serial killers, as well as catch child predators and rapists. It’s also helped exonerate innocent Floridians from wrongful convictions, even saving some from death row. While the benefits of genetic testing for criminal cases have many examples, recent legislation in Florida could reduce its impact.
The technology is here and the Harrison case, among others, shows DNA testing can be used for positive outcomes when it comes to delivering justice, for both exoneration and prosecution, but some efforts in the legislature have created limits for how DNA can be used in the criminal justice system.
A law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, House Bill 833, limited the sources of genetic evidence used to catch criminals. One challenge to using DNA to solve a crime is having a sample to compare. To that end, some law enforcement agencies have turned to web site databases, like Ancestry.com or GEDmatch, to find the necessary material to compare to, and hunt down killers and rapists.
HB 833 made limits to how those sites can be used by law enforcement, specifically in the interest of donor privacy. Unauthorized use of the DNA now comes with penalties, both money and prison time. Separately, another Florida law that took effect in 2021 required law enforcement officers to create a statewide database for tracking the DNA kits, and to keep victims of assault informed about their status.
A bill proposed in the 2022 legislative session seeks to expand the potential exonerations through DNA testing, but has so far remained stalled in committees.