Police have new hope of solving 1990 killing

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police hope the DNA technology that exonerated JonBenet Ramsey's family can help crack one of the city's most confounding murder mysteries.

Police are using new “touch DNA” technology on evidence in the 1990 slaying of women's rights activist Kim Thomas, police Capt. Paul Zinkann confirmed Tuesday. No one has ever been convicted of the crime.

The brutal killing gripped Charlotte for years as investigators struggled for answers.

Police charged Thomas' well-known husband, Dr. Ed Friedland, with murder four years after the crime. But the case was dropped due to insufficient evidence, and Friedland accused Marion Gales, a laborer with a burglary conviction who had done yard work for couple. Gales was never charged. Friedland now practices in Florida.

In “touch DNA” testing, forensic scientists scrape clothing or other evidence for skin cells left by someone who may have briefly touched the items.

Technicians can extract DNA from the cells, and determine whom they came from.

Last month, prosecutors in Colorado announced they'd cleared the immediate family in the notorious Ramsey murder case, after touch DNA testing found genetic material from an unknown male on two of the girl's clothing items. Police departments around the country have used the technology for about a year.

The testing may finally solve one of Charlotte's most sensational murder cases.

Thomas was stabbed to death in her southeast Charlotte home on July 27, 1990. The killer handcuffed her, chased her through the house and slashed her more than 20 times, leaving her bleeding on the dining room floor.

In 1995, prosecutors dropped the murder charge against her husband after a judge ruled in a pretrial hearing that key testimony from an expert prosecution witness on the time of death was inadmissible.

Friedland has blamed the slaying on Gales.

The laborer was never charged in the case. But Fried land sued Gales in civil court in 1996 and was awarded $8.6 million by a jury in the wrongful death trial. Friedland also filed a malicious prosecution suit accusing police of botching the investigation. A judge dismissed the suit in 2001, ruling that authorities had reasonable grounds to prosecute Friedland.

Last month, Gales, 47, was charged with murder in the death of a 27-year-old woman whose body was found off Oaklawn Avenue in April. Police have said forensic evidence links Gales to that case but have declined to release details.

Police are in the “very preliminary stages” of their review of evidence in the Thomas case, Zinkann said in an e-mail to the Observer Tuesday.

Zinkann, who heads the Homicide/Missing Persons Unit, declined to say what prompted police to begin reviewing the case, or how many other cases police are reviewing for possible touch DNA testing.

In the Thomas case, police collected hundreds of pieces of physical evidence, including handcuffs, clothing and shoeprints.

If technicians find Friedland's DNA on any incriminating evidence, prosecutors could decide to try him again. Prosecutors avoided the possibility of double jeopardy in his case by dropping the charge before he was tried. Because the crime occurred in the couple's home, though, his DNA could be found throughout the house. It would be more unusual to find Gales' DNA in the house.

Kim Thomas' sister, Lynn, said her father sent a New York Times article about touch DNA testing to Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist, who forwarded it to police.

“Everybody involved wants closure,” Lynn Thomas said.

Gilchrist said he believes “this matter has been solved.” He has told the Observer he believes he knows who killed Kim Thomas – and “it wasn't Marion Gales.”

On Tuesday, Gilchrist said: “Someday, someone may tell us something we did not know earlier. If that happens, we'll re-look at the evidence.”

Friedland's attorney, David Rudolf, said Tuesday he hopes the new DNA testing will end years of suspicion surrounding his client.

“Clearly, the most significant piece of evidence would be the handcuffs,' Rudolf said. “There is no doubt in my mind that if police find DNA on the handcuffs, it won't be Ed Friedland's…If anybody else's DNA can be linked to those handcuffs, then it will put to rest any possible suspicions against Ed.”

Staff writer Elizabeth Leland contributed.