Washington State Casino Discarded Cups Lead to Murder Conviction Hours After Defendant’s Suicide

Posted on: November 12, 2020, 11:46h. 

Last updated on: November 13, 2020, 10:20h.

A Washington state man on trial for murder after investigators linked his DNA to discarded coffee cups from Tulalip Resort Casino apparently committed suicide this week. Just a few hours later, a jury found the 78-year-old man guilty of the 1972 murder.

Law professors analyze the evidence used in the case
Terrence Miller, who was on trial for murder, died from an apparent suicide this week. But jurors kept on deliberating and found him guilty. Among the evidence was DNA lifted from discarded coffee cups at a Washington state casino. (Image: Law & Crime)

Saliva from the coffee cups taken from the Tulalip, Washington gaming property was matched to evidence at the crime scene, police said. In April 2019, Terrence Miller, who resided in Edmonds, Washington, was charged for the murder.

The two-week trial, held at Snohomish County Superior Court, saw Miller’s attorneys insist he was innocent of the first-degree murder charge. Even after his death, Miller’s defense attorneys tried to get the case dismissed. But the jury kept on deliberating until reaching the verdict.

The jury began meeting last Friday and continued on Monday. Judge David Kurtz told them that Miller had died, but instructed the jury to read their verdict on Monday.

The victim, Jody Loomis, who was 20 years old at the time of the shooting, was killed when she was riding a bicycle on the way to see her horse. Many years after the homicide, DNA found on a boot belonging to Loomis was matched to Miller using forensic genealogy.

Under this novel approach, DNA found at crime scenes is compared to DNA databases to pinpoint potential matches, according to My Edmonds News, a local news site. Family ancestry “trees” are identified in the process.

The forensic method was used to convict Joseph James DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer in California, now serving a life term in prison for serial murders and sexual assaults.

“I’m glad that we got to hear the verdict,” said Jim Scharf, a sheriff’s detective who worked on the Loomis homicide, to the Associated Press. “I think that was good for the (Loomis) family.”

Miller had posted $1 million bond, so he was not incarcerated at the time of his death. He died at his residence, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office said.

An autopsy will be performed by the county medical examiner’s office to confirm the manner of death.

Highly Unusual for Jury to Deliberate if Defendant Dies

Details of the case and the court’s decision to let the jury continue to deliberate after the defendant’s death led to comments from two California criminal law experts contacted by Casino.org.

Andrea Roth, a criminal law professor at Berkeley Law School and a former trial and appellate public defender, described the jury continuing to deliberate after the defendant’s death “highly unusual (almost unheard of) …. The criminal prosecution assumes the defendant is alive; there is no defendant to convict and punish.”

“But you can imagine reasons society might want to go forward with the ritual of a trial, even if the defendant cannot be punished — because of death, unknown location, incapacity, incompetence, or diplomatic immunity, say. A guilty verdict allows the victim’s family some amount of closure and vindication, and allows society to signal that it enforces its criminal law.”

She also points out trials are “expensive, and going forward with deliberations and verdict where the judgment ultimately is unenforceable is arguably an unwise use of limited state resources.”

In addition, Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal trial and appellate prosecutor, said, “Not sure why the jury continued to deliberate…. If the defendant is dead, the case is moot.”

Is Discarded Coffee Cup Permissible as Evidence?

Roth, who is a legal expert on the use of DNA in criminal trials, pointed out that under the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment on search and seizure, “The DNA we shed on surfaces like coffee cups is considered ‘abandoned,’ just as if the police went through the trash you put out on the curb.

“Arguably this ‘garbage’ analogy is inapt, given that we can’t help shedding our DNA, even if we take precautions to keep our whereabouts, activities, and genetic code private,” Roth added. “A state … could always pass a statute granting more protection in this area, such as requiring law enforcement to have a warrant, or at least probable cause or reasonable suspicion, before they surveil someone and gather their DNA without their consent. Here, they presumably did have probable cause, and could have gotten a warrant, based on their investigation that led to Miller.”

Laurie Levenson says “It is permissible to take DNA off of a cup…. Using this DNA is not a Fourth Amendment search because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy that is violated.”

“And there is no ethical issue,” she added. “This type of investigation has become standard.”

Yet, Andrea Roth noted that the form of “investigative genealogy” used in the Loomis murder case “might itself raise Fourth Amendment concerns if law enforcement gains access to an otherwise private database — say, 23andMe.

“I don’t know what database was used here. But [US Supreme Court Justice [Neil] Gorsuch, in a dissenting opinion in US v. Carpenter, intimated that sharing one’s DNA with a private company like 23andMe wouldn’t thereby allow police to access it without any Fourth Amendment scrutiny.”