- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

District of Columbia police must wait for time-consuming tests on DNA evidence gathered from the room of a slain Gallaudet University student before they can connect a suspect to the killing, officials said yesterday.
Thomas Minch, 18, a freshman at the school, walked out of court Wednesday after prosecutors said they would not file formal charges against him in the killing of Eric Franklin Plunkett because of "insufficient evidence."
Mr. Minch remains a suspect, say D.C. police officials, who made clear that investigators have "a wealth of forensic evidence" in the case, which began last Thursday when the body of Mr. Plunkett, 19, was found in his dormitory room.
Police arrested Mr. Minch on Tuesday on a charge of second-degree murder.
Detectives are waiting for DNA test results to connect Mr. Minch to the crime, and "when that information comes back, they'll just go out and arrest him again," said one police official.
"This guy ain't off the hook by a long shot," he added.
In general, DNA tests take an average of several weeks to be completed. The most definitive results take even longer, as much as two months or more.
The delay gets longer for the Metropolitan Police Department. Investigators must farm out the DNA work to the FBI or other agencies because the District does not have a forensic or toxicology lab.
Prosecutors and police have publicly refused to say exactly why the second-degree murder charge against Mr. Minch was dropped.
But based on legal procedures, police comments as the investigation progressed and sources familiar with the case, DNA is the missing link.
Mr. Plunkett, who suffered from cerebral palsy, died of wounds to the neck and head, an autopsy showed, and a chair in his room was the weapon, police said.
Police also said they believe the attack resulted from a "domestic-type" dispute and was not the work of a marauding killer. The original second-degree-murder charge, which does not have the element of premeditation, reflects that theory.
In a domestic dispute, it is likely the attacker would suffer wounds and leave skin, blood or hair which contain DNA at the scene.
It is not clear how detectives would connect such DNA to Mr. Minch.
Police have not drawn blood or taken a DNA sample from him, said one official familiar with the case.
DNA evidence can be difficult to test because of mixed samples or contamination, and investigations that revolve around the material are painstaking.
The District's top public-safety official said police had "a lot of evidence" to conclude there was probable cause Mr. Minch committed the crime.
"But the reality is that probable cause is a subjective standard," Margret Kellems Nedelkoff, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said.
Investigators spoke with the U.S. Attorney's Office by phone Tuesday afternoon and explained the case, and then picked up Mr. Minch, she said.
On Wednesday, however, "They got together to review the charges, and the prosecutor said, 'This doesn't rise to the level of probable cause at this point' without supplemental forensic evidence," Ms. Kellems said.
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said police did not consult prosecutors before they arrested Mr. Minch.
"There was never any indication the person was being arrested," he said. "There may be an indication he was being brought in for questioning, but there's a huge difference there."
Meanwhile, the close-knit community at Gallaudet struggled in the aftermath of a student's violent death and accusations against his friend.
Mr. Minch has been barred from campus for his own safety and the safety of others, university Provost Jane Fernandes said yesterday.
Depending on how the case unfolds, he may be allowed back to the university, she said.
Hundreds of parents are expected to attend parents' weekend today and tomorrow, which will include a memorial service for Mr. Plunkett and a question-and-answer session about the "campus crisis."
While safety is still a big concern, finding out who killed Mr. Plunkett is their main worry, students said during a school assembly yesterday.
"The biggest fear on campus is that the murderer has been let go, but the second is that the police are rushing their investigation," said Mercy Coogan, a university spokeswoman.
Derek Simmonsen contributed to this report.

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