DNA testing yields new clues in 49-year-old cold case
After nearly 50 years, investigators may finally have cracked one of the Boston area’s most notorious unsolved murders.
The Middlesex District Attorney’s office plans to hold a news conference Tuesday to announce a major development in its quest to identify who killed Jane Sanders Britton, a Harvard University graduate student who was sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge apartment in January 1969. Prosecutors said the break in the case came from DNA testing but declined to provide more details.
“Over the past year our office has been in the process of conducting DNA testing on the evidence taken from a 1969 Cambridge homicide,” Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a news advisory released Monday. “I am excited to announce a significant development in the case as a result of that testing.”
The case made national headlines. Britton, 23, was a Harvard student and the daughter of an administrator at Radcliffe College, a prestigious women’s college affiliated with Harvard. And while the crime scene contained many clues, many were mysterious.
A boyfriend found Britton’s body in her fourth-floor apartment after she failed to show up for an exam, but none of the neighbors reported hearing any screams or a struggle. Her valuables were untouched. Most perplexing of all, red powder was reportedly found scattered around the unit, including at least a few grains on her body.
Police devoted significant resources to identifying the killer. Detectives scoured her phone directory and diary for names of people to interview. They asked her boyfriend and neighbors to take lie detector tests and filmed her funeral.
But police never identified a suspect, and the case gradually receded from public view. Yet in recent years, the case sparked speculation online and caught the eye of journalists and amateur detectives alike.
Becky Cooper, a former New Yorker staffer who heard about the case when she was a student at Harvard, has been working on a book about the case, tentatively titled “We Keep the Dead Close” and slated to be published by Grand Central Publishing in late 2019 or early 2020. The makers of television shows “Yukon Men” and “Kindred Spirits” are also developing a documentary series about the case.
The case also sparked a high-profile public records battle. Several people interested in the case have tried to obtain copies of the investigative files. But Middlesex prosecutors refused to release much more than old news clippings, saying the investigation into the killing remained active.
Some of the people seeking the files were skeptical.
“It didn’t look like they were giving the case much attention over the years,” said Michael Widmer, a Belmont resident who has repeatedly appealed the office’s denials to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office. Widmer, a former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he became interested in the case because it was the first story he covered as a United Press International reporter in Boston, and has always wondered why it was never solved.
After the Globe inquired about the case, prosecutors decided to conduct additional DNA testing, a step they said they were already considering. Widmer said he was amazed to learn that prosecutors learned enough from the tests to yield a major development.
“It’s been almost 50 years,” Widmer said. “Unbelievable.”
While DNA testing has been used for decades, it has advanced significantly in recent years, making it easier to solve cold cases even when DNA tests had already been conducted.
“The rate of progress is just amazing,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic scientist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Years ago, this would have been unthinkable.”
Kobilinsky noted that DNA tests have become more sensitive over time, and that databases of test results have become more expansive, sharply increasing the likelihood of a match. In addition, the federal government has been offering grants to help local police departments take advantage of the new technology to solve old crimes.
For instance, Boston Police’s cold case unit has used federal grants to use DNA testing to solve long unsolved murders, including that of Janet Phinney, who was strangled and then dumped in the woods in West Roxbury in 1988. In that case, new DNA tests led to murder charges against her former boyfriend, who was convicted of the crime in 2013.