When Ted Bundy was executed in January of 1989 I was in my third year of law school and had already accepted a position in a District Attorney’s office in Pennsylvania. A soon to be prosecutor, I naturally watched the spectacle of his upcoming execution with interest. He continued to capture the attention of the media and the public by granting interviews at the last minute, feigning remorse at the murder of his last, 13-year-old victim, and blaming his necrophilia on pornography he saw as a child. His Rob Lowe-esque good looks and demeanor made fathers realize that their twenty something- year-old daughters could have easily succumbed to his charm if they had had the misfortune of crossing him in their ordinary lives. But with him and the aura and circus that surrounded him, it was easy to skip over the details—at least 30 women and girls between the ages of 12 and 26 tortured, raped, and murdered; body parts bitten off; necrophilia; crimes committed across more than six states; two escapes; and questions from hundreds of parents, “Did he kill my daughter too?”
But for all the attention the media paid to Bundy’s charm, the public didn’t overlook those details. What I found to be the most compelling footage of the whole Bundy execution circus was not his last interview or the replaying of his charming self-representation in court. No, the most intriguing coverage was the footage of the crowds lining the streets on the way to where Bundy was to be executed. Hundreds of people stood in the streets with signs wishing him a speedy trip to hell. There was, as described by some reporters, a festive atmosphere in anticipation of Bundy’s death by electrocution.
It seemed to me that society was tapping a communal high pressure valve. A system that had failed society by allowing over 30 women to be raped and murdered was finally working and justice was being done. This was their release. The almost joyous atmosphere was a reaction to the pent-up frustration and angst over a murdering rapist who had beaten the system time and time again with name changes, charmed excuses, and sinister planning but was finally going to get what he deserved.
To fast forward to the present, it was announced that a vial of Bundy’s blood has been found by investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and that a DNA profile has been developed and entered into CODIS. He is the classic, the poster-child criminal for NDIS. He was truly national in his crime spree, and had he been stopped after one of his first murderous episodes, we literally don’t know how many lives would have been spared. (We simply just don’t know how many women he ultimately killed.) I would be surprised if his case wasn’t mentioned in Congressional testimony before the DNA Identification Act of ’94 was passed.
So it’s more than a little ironic that the week before the DNA of one of America’s most notorious serial killers is entered into a DNA database, the First Appellate Court in California has ruled its arrestee database to be unconstitutional. Now there is a contrast for you. The single best example of the potential of DNA technology and DNA databases not just to solve crime but to—in the most literal sense—save lives, summarily thwarted with a court decision based on the “totality of the circumstances” analysis.