A man confessed to the crime in 1996. Why did it take the police so long to charge him?
The gray-shingled apartment building at 655 Fitch St. in Hamden, Connecticut, is unremarkable. A "For Rent" sign flaps out front.
But in August 1987, a grisly double murder occurred in this ordinary building just over the New Haven line.
A father and his adult son, their hands bound, were found, both stabbed in the chest and with their throats viciously cut, according to court records.
Captain Ronald Smith of the Hamden police described the murder as "bone-chilling" in a recent interview.
"Any murder is horrific," he said. "But this was over the top."
For 32 years, the murders were officially unsolved. But the case was not truly cold — more like on a low simmer.
The police announced an arrest in the killings last month. The man charged in the crime, Willie McFarland, had been questioned within weeks of the murders, and had confessed to them in 1996, the authorities said.
But the science available then could not give the police the evidence they needed for an arrest. That changed this year.
In a growing number of cases, advances in DNA testing have helped overturn wrongful convictions for hundreds of innocent people. By September, the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group, had documented 365 DNA-exoneration cases in the United States since 1989; 130 involved people wrongly convicted of murder.
But scientific advances have also been a boon to law enforcement authorities across the country as they seek to close cases that have languished for decades.
This year alone, DNA evidence has led to arrests in more than a half-dozen unsolved murders going back 20 years or more, including in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, California and Colorado. In some instances — the case of the so-called Golden State Killer may be the best known — investigators have turned to genealogical databases in trying to use DNA to identify suspects.
In the Hamden case, items that had not previously yielded anything useful were tested again recently and used to link McFarland to the crime, said John Cappiello, the current acting police chief.
McFarland, 52, is in jail in lieu of a US$2 million bond. At a court appearance last week, he declined to enter a plea, rejected being represented by a public defender and said he preferred to defend himself, according to Seth Garbarsky, a senior state's attorney for the New Haven Judicial District. McFarland is scheduled to return to court Wednesday.
An affidavit prepared by a Hamden police detective describes in vivid detail the killings and the three-decade investigation that followed.
On August 27, 1987, the police went to check on Fred Harris, 59, and Greg Harris, 23, after a relative reported not having heard from them for about a week.
The officers found the men's bodies side by side on the bedroom floor of their residence, their chests punctured with stab wounds, their throats slashed and their hands tied behind their backs. Fred Harris' feet were bound and his pants were unbuttoned. Greg Harris' underwear and pants were down at his ankles.
The men had been killed several days earlier, sometime between the night of August 21 and the morning of August 22, investigators determined.
McFarland, the affidavit says, had been released from prison August 20. He had been arrested August 22 within hours of the murders after he was accused of using a knife in a sexual assault about a mile away in New Haven.
That led detectives to interview him in prison that September. He denied any role in the Hamden killings.
The police chased other leads. A local woman told them she had been in the condo on the night of the murders with two men who she said were the killers. Both denied being involved. (One has since died, as has the woman who implicated him. DNA evidence cleared the second man this year.)
Then, in August 1996, McFarland contacted the Hamden police, the affidavit says. He said he wanted to confess because he had "found religion and was dying of HIV."
In several statements over the next few months, the affidavit says, he recounted "his connection to the victims, entrance to the home, the torturing purpose of the shallow chest wounds and the near-decapitation of both victims."
Smith, who took McFarland's confession, said that "he told us approximately 30 things that you would have had to be there to know."
McFarland told the police that he had gone to the Harris condo to steal money or maybe a gun, the affidavit says. When Greg Harris answered the door, McFarland said he forced his way in, ordered the father and son upstairs, told them to lie on the floor, tore a phone cord from the wall and tied them up.
McFarland said he then went to the kitchen because he was hungry.
Greg Harris freed himself and tried to escape, but McFarland caught him and tied him up again, according to the affidavit. Then, McFarland said, he sexually assaulted him.
After that, he said he stabbed the elder Harris in the chest and then slit his throat, before doing the same to Greg Harris.
McFarland said he searched Fred Harris' pants for money. He found car keys but left them because he worried that being caught with them would have connected him to the killings.
He ransacked the apartment, emptying the dresser drawers on the floor. He said he stole about US$31 in change.
McFarland's 1996 account was persuasive, but the police lacked sufficient physical evidence for an arrest warrant. A decade later, they thought they had what they needed for DNA testing that would confirm the confession. But the testing "on a limited amount of evidence" could not link him or anyone else to the crime, the affidavit says.
Twelve years passed before the state's crime lab reported in January that results of new testing on a glove found at the scene "were consistent with the DNA profile from the glove being a mixture of four contributors, with at least one being male," according to the affidavit.
It was "at least 1.5 million times more likely" that McFarland was one of those four than that the DNA was from four unknown people, the affidavit says.
That was enough to give the police probable cause to arrest and charge McFarland. Should the case go to trial, a jury will determine whether it, combined with his confession and any other evidence the prosecution offers, is enough for a conviction.
Generally speaking, jurors would still "need to know certain details" of the case "to come up with what does this all mean," said Carll Ladd, the supervisor of the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory's DNA unit.
Fred Harris' daughter, who has been in contact with the authorities, could not be reached for comment.
For Smith, the DNA break in the case was a long time coming, especially once the police had obtained a confession.
The crime, he said, "was something we always had some hope of solving."
Written by: Ed Shanahan
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES