Man Takes Murder Plea Deal In First Colorado Case Impacted By Work Of Embattled Dna Analyst

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — A Colorado man pleaded guilty on Thursday to lesser charges in the killings of three people in 2017, the first prosecution in the state believed to be impacted by the work of a state DNA analyst accused of tampering with test results.

Garrett Coughlin, 31, pleaded guilty to three second-degree murder charges in the killings of Wallace White, Kelly Sloat-White and Emory Fraker near Boulder on April 13, 2017.

Prosecutors gave Coughlin the chance to make the plea partly because they were unable to call former Colorado Bureau of Investigation scientist Yvonne “Missy” Woods to testify in a case that relied mostly on circumstantial evidence.

The deal allowed Coughlin to avoid a possible life sentence if he was convicted for a second time for felony murder. Coughlin's original conviction and sentence were overturned after it was discovered that at least one juror had lied during jury selection.

In March, the CBI announced a criminal investigation after it said it discovered that Woods intentionally cut corners and didn’t follow standard DNA testing protocols, raising questions about hundreds of criminal cases in which she processed evidence. The bureau said Woods was placed on leave after it became aware of irregularities in her work in September 2023, and she resigned before its internal review was completed.

A review found Woods manipulated data during DNA testing and posted incomplete test results in some cases. But it did not find that she falsified DNA matches or otherwise fabricated DNA profiles, the bureau said at the time, without providing more details.

A bureau internal affairs report released Wednesday said there were earlier concerns about Woods' work. A worker had questioned Woods' testing of evidence in 2014 and she had been temporarily removed from working on DNA cases in 2018 after being accused of data manipulation, it said.

“Following the discovery of Woods’ actions in manipulating DNA analysis data in 2023, CBI is meticulously reviewing all of its testing protocols,” CBI Director Chris Schaefer said in a statement about the report, which was first reported by the Denver Gazette. “Not only is Woods’ caseload being reviewed, but we are auditing the results of all current and previous DNA scientists to ensure the integrity of the Lab.”

In a statement, Woods’ lawyer, Ryan Brackley, said Woods has long maintained that she has never created or falsely reported any inculpatory DNA matches or exclusions and has not testified falsely in any proceeding that resulted in a false conviction or unjust punishment.

Brackley also said he understands that the prosecution retested the DNA evidence in the Coughlin case and noted that the second results were the same as the first.

“In any case in which Ms. Woods completed testing which led to suspicion, an arrest, a conviction or incarceration, we will expect to see again and again that she got it right,” he said.

In court Thursday, Chief Trial Deputy Catrina Weigel told Judge Nancy Salomone that Woods had “deleted and manipulated data” in a DNA sample taken from Sloat-White. Weigel didn't elaborate.

According to a defense motion seeking to dismiss the case, Woods found male DNA in a sample of Sloat-White's blood taken during an autopsy — an indication that the sample had become contaminated possibly when it was taken or by a machine used to test it in the CBI crime laboratory. But rather than try to find out how the male DNA turned up, Woods deleted any reference to it from a spreadsheet summarizing testing results, Coughlin's defense said.

The defense asked the judge to dismiss the case since Woods worked on all of the other DNA evidence involved, and the alleged misconduct called into question that work.

After the hearing, one of Coughlin's attorneys, Mary Claire Mulligan, said Woods' actions showed that CBI's protocols had failed but declined further comment on Coughlin's case.

Weigel also told Judge Nancy Salomone that another reason for offering the plea deal was that a former CBI ballistics analyst who had testified at Coughlin’s first trial tried to avoid being subpoenaed to testify in the new trial about the gun prosecutors say was used in the killings. The analyst was served but had not been in contact with prosecutors, she said.

Salomone apologized for how the criminal justice system had failed the relatives of the victims before sentencing Coughlin to the 42 years in prison agreed upon by prosecutors and defense. Salomone said those who worked on the case were disappointed with the outcome and that she could not imagine how the victims' family felt after waiting for justice for seven years.

"Sometimes a thing that is appropriate and necessary for a whole lot of reasons about the system and its processes doesn’t feel remotely like justice,” she said.

Coughlin will get credit for the seven years he has already spent behind bars and will be eligible for parole in about 24 years.

District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the Coughlin case is the first of hundreds in which Woods allegedly was found to have altered data, tampered with evidence or falsified records. He said he thinks there could be more.

“The actions by Ms. Woods will have a long-term, damaging impact on criminal cases that we've prosecuted over the past few years,” he said.

Kathy Eppler, the sister of Wallace White and Emory Fraker, shares that fear.

“My heart breaks for not just ourselves and what's happened here, but all the others that will have to go through more of this, and all of our communities that are going to have these people released into their world,” she said.