DNA helps convict man in 1998 rape of teacher

EVERETT — From the moment she heard his voice, her life would never be the same.

She learned to be afraid.

Walking into empty rooms, sudden sounds, being alone or in crowds and encountering any unfamiliar men filled her with fear.

The masked stranger robbed her of the life she had before she heard his voice, saw him standing there in her classroom with a gun pointed at her. He was intent on hurting her. He did.

“To this day, I have no idea who he is, how he found me, or why he did this to me. He is a complete stranger to me. Yet he has changed me in so many ways,” the woman said Monday.

She took a few deep breaths and then in a strong, clear voice began her story — a rape survivor recounting being attacked in the same room where she taught second-grade students about the wonders of science and the beauty found in the pages of books.

On Monday, a judge convicted Michael McConnell of first-degree rape for the 1998 attack on the teacher.

Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss sentenced McConnell to 13 years in prison for the assault at Discovery Elementary School. The defendant was 17 at the time of the crime.

The judge called the attack one of the worst scenarios a person could imagine. The woman was working alone in her classroom, preparing for summer school. A stranger, wearing a mask and pointing a handgun, stepped into her view. He had climbed through an open window while she’d been at lunch. He held a gun to her head, robbed her and raped her. He threatened to kill her and ripped the phone out of the wall before fleeing.

“This impacted so many people other than just me — the staff, the students, and students’ families. We all had to wonder where he was, if he was watching, if he would attack someone at the school again,” the woman explained Monday.

McConnell, now 31, has denied raping the woman. He declined to say anything Monday.

His attorneys indicated that McConnell plans to appeal the case, asserting that time had run out to prosecute him for the assault. The lawyers had argued that a delay in charging the case had hurt McConnell’s right to defend himself. Much of the evidence had been destroyed in 2003 after a detective assumed that the statute of limitations had run out.

But one piece of key evidence collected at the scene had been preserved and provided a break in the case.

During the initial investigation, genetic evidence was collected but didn’t identify a suspect. Then in 2010, cold case detectives at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office asked that the genetic material be retested using current technology.

They made the request as part of their investigation into the 1995 killing of Patti Berry, and the presumed slaying of Tracey Brazzel earlier that same year. The suspect in those deaths, Danny Giles, was known to ride a bicycle. Bicycle tire tracks discovered in 1998 suggested the rapist had pedaled away from the school.

Scientists ran the tests and concluded male genetic evidence collected at the rape scene didn’t match Giles. Instead, it reportedly matched McConnell’s profile in the state’s DNA database. His genetic profile had been entered after a burglary conviction in 2000, said Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Matt Hunter.

McConnell said he’d been living within one mile of the school at the time this rape occurred. And he admitted using a bicycle as a method of transportation at that time.

Generally, prosecutors have 10 years from when a rape was committed to file a charge. However, there is some leeway in cases such as these, in which the suspect hasn’t been identified.

Prosecutors contend the law allows them to file rape charges a year from when the suspect is conclusively identified through DNA testing, as happened in this case.

The defendant’s attorneys, Jennifer Rancourt and Whitney Rivera, argued that the case could have been charged much earlier using the unique DNA profile first identified in 1998. Prosecutors didn’t have the man’s name, but they could have filed charges without a naming a defendant, as they have done in other cases, court papers said. Additionally, the DNA could have been retested in 2000, as the advanced technology was available. That likely would have prevented all the other evidence from being destroyed, the defense attorneys said.

The destruction of evidence — including the victim’s clothing, crime scene photographs and a plaster cast of the tire tracks left by the rapist’s bicycle — impeded the defense attorneys’ ability to properly investigate the case, they wrote in court papers.

Weiss in December declined to dismiss the case against McConnell. He concluded that legislators specifically included the words “conclusively identified” when deciding when the clock for filing charges should start. That means more than having a unique DNA profile without a name, the judge said.

Once Weiss made his ruling, the defense agreed to a bench trial, giving the judge, not a jury, the power to decide whether McConnell was guilty. That will allow McConnell to appeal the pre-trial ruling, but also spared the victim from testifying, Rancourt said.

Weiss said he considered the defendant’s agreement to skip a jury trial in deciding an appropriate sentence. He could have tacked on another two years under the state’s sentencing guidelines.

The teacher and her husband asked the judge to sentence McConnell to the maximum.

“He stole so much from my wife,” the woman’s husband said. “He injected so many demons into our life.”

The woman stood in front of a packed courtroom Monday — a teacher with a lesson not in revenge or anger or hate.

“I know from my life as a teacher and a Christian that no matter how big one’s mistakes, there can always, always be a fresh start — a new beginning,” she said. “I hope and pray that he will be offered the help he needs to become the person God created him to be.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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