Man accepts murder plea in first Colorado case influenced by work of controversial DNA analyst

BOULDER, Colo. – A Colorado man pleaded guilty Thursday to reduced charges in the 2017 murders of three people, the first prosecution in the state believed to have been influenced by the work of a state DNA analyst accused of tampering with test results .

Garrett Coughlin, 31, pleaded guilty to three counts of murder in the April 13, 2017, slayings of Wallace White, Kelly Sloat-White and Emory Fraker near Boulder.

Prosecutors gave Coughlin the chance to make the plea in part because they could not call former Colorado Bureau of Investigation scientist Yvonne “Missy” Woods to testify in a case that relied largely on circumstantial evidence.

The deal allowed Coughlin to avoid a possible life sentence if convicted of murder a second time. 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 finding that Woods deliberately cut corners and failed to follow standard DNA testing protocols, raising questions about hundreds of criminal cases in which she handled evidence. The agency said Woods was placed on leave after it became aware of irregularities in her employment in September 2023, and that she resigned before the internal review was completed.

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

An agency internal affairs report released Wednesday said there had been previous concerns about Woods’ work. An employee had questioned Woods’ testing of evidence in 2014, and she was temporarily removed from working on DNA cases in 2018 after being accused of data manipulation, the report said.

“Following the discovery of Woods’ actions in manipulating DNA analysis data in 2023, the CBI is closely 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 also auditing the results of all current and former DNA scientists to ensure the integrity of the Lab.”

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

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

“In every case where Ms. Woods has completed tests that have led to suspicion, an arrest, a conviction or incarceration, we will expect to see that she was right again and again,” he said.

On Thursday, Chief Catrina Weigel told Judge Nancy Salomone that Woods had “deleted and manipulated data” in a DNA sample from Sloat-White. Weigel did not elaborate further.

According to a defense motion to dismiss the case, Woods found male DNA in a blood sample of Sloat-White taken during an autopsy — an indication that the sample may have been contaminated when it was collected or by a machine that was used to test it. the CBI crime lab. But instead of trying to figure out how the male DNA turned up, Woods removed any reference to it from a spreadsheet summarizing the test results, Coughlin’s defense said.

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

After the hearing, one of Coughlin’s attorneys, Mary Claire Mulligan, said Woods’ actions showed that CBI 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 was trying to avoid being subpoenaed to testify in the retrial about the weapons prosecutors say were used in the killings. The analyst was interviewed but had not had contact with prosecutors, she said.

Salomone apologized for the way the criminal justice system had failed the victims’ family members before Coughlin was sentenced to the 42-year prison sentence 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’ families felt after waiting seven years for justice.

“Sometimes something that is appropriate and necessary for a lot of reasons in the system and its processes doesn’t feel remotely like justice,” she said.

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

District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the Coughlin case is the first of hundreds in which Woods allegedly altered records, tampered with evidence or falsified documents. He said he thinks more is possible.

“Ms. Woods’ actions will have a long-term damaging impact on the criminal cases we have prosecuted in recent years,” he said.

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

“My heart breaks not only for ourselves and what happened here, but for everyone else who will have to go through this again, and for all of our communities who will allow these people to be released into their world,” she said.