A California man who spent 14 years in prison for the murder of a newspaper columnist has been exonerated thanks to the same DNA technology that caught the Golden State Killer suspect, authorities said.
Ricky Davis was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1985 fatal stabbing of 54-year-old Jane Hylton. He walked free from prison Thursday, CNN affiliate KOVR reported, hours after becoming the first person in California to be exonerated with the help of genetic genealogy — the combination of DNA analysis and family tree research.
In 1985, Hylton was found dead inside an El Dorado Hills, California, home that she shared with her daughter, Davis and his then-girlfriend, and another woman, according to the Northern California Innocence Project, which represented Davis.
Davis and his girlfriend, who were returning from a party, along with Hylton’s daughter, who had been out with friends, found Hylton dead in one of the bedrooms, the NCIP said.
The case went cold until 1999, when investigators reopened the case. Police interrogated Davis’ girlfriend several times and she ultimately changed her story, implicating Davis and herself in Hylton’s death, the NCIP said.
In 2005, Davis was convicted and sentenced to 16 years to life in state prison, authorities said. His girlfriend received a year in county jail.
After his conviction, the Northern California Innocence Project took on Davis’ case and requested the El Dorado County district attorney do post-conviction DNA testing. In 2014, forensic experts began an “extremely meticulous process” of examining the evidence of the case and eventually found DNA that did not belong to Davis, said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who has been leading the efforts to use DNA evidence in cold cases.
Davis’ case was reopened and last year, a judge reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial, Schubert said.
He is now the first person in California, and the second in the country, to be exonerated after the use of genetic genealogy, Schubert said.
Last year, a man in Idaho who was convicted in the 1996 killing of Angie Dodge was exonerated after spending 22 years in jail, according to the Idaho State Police.
“Investigative genetic genealogy, just like traditional DNA, is about one thing: finding the truth no matter what it is,” Schuber said.
A new suspect in Hylton’s murder was identified and has been arrested in Roseville, California, according to El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson.
The suspect was not identified because he was a juvenile at the time of the killing, Pierson said.
“Ricky Davis was falsely accused, brought to trial, convicted and spent the last 15-some years in custody for a crime I can tell you in all confidence, he did not commit,”
The Golden State Killer case opened the door for genetic genealogy. In the technique, unidentified DNA is uploaded into a public online database — GEDMatch in the GSK case — that has more than 1 million DNA profiles from people across the country. The website then produces a list of people who are related to the unidentified DNA, from immediate parents to fourth and fifth cousins.
Genetic genealogists can then use obituaries, birth certificates, public documents and social media to try to build a family tree and identify possible suspects.
FamilyTreeDNA was the database used in the Davis exoneration.