EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — An appeals court in Washington state on Monday overturned the cold-case murder convictions against a man accused of killing a young Canadian couple in 1987, citing juror bias.
Detectives arrested William Earl Talbott II in 2018 using the then-novel method of genetic genealogy to name him as the killer of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg.
Genetic genealogy involves identifying suspects by entering crime-scene DNA profiles into public databases that people have used for years to fill out their family trees.
The three appeals court judges found that one of the jurors should have been dismissed during jury selection because she said she didn’t know if she could be fair. She had experience of violence against women and she did not know if she, as a mother, could be unbiased in such a case, she said.
“A flood of emotion might come over me … and cloud my judgment,” she said.
The juror, known as juror 40, was still seated by Superior Court Judge Linda Krese, who has since retired. The juror heard witness testimony for weeks and reached the guilty verdict with 11 others, following three days of deliberation.
“After her clear, repeated expressions of actual bias as to the precise nature of the allegations at the heart of this trial and evidence which would be introduced, we cannot conclude that juror 40 was sufficiently rehabilitated such that Talbott was provided a fair and impartial jury,” Judge Cecily Hazelrigg wrote for the appeals court.
Prosecutors have until Jan. 5 to ask the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling.
In 2019, Talbott, 58, became the first person convicted by a jury in a case involving genetic genealogy, which previously had been used to crack the Golden State Killer serial murder case and which has since been used to solve many other cases.
Talbott was sentenced to life in prison for two counts of aggravated murder in the first degree.
Talbott’s appellate attorneys raised many other issues related to the evidence in the case, as did Talbott in court papers he prepared himself. The appeals court only addressed juror bias, not concerns related to genetic genealogy.
Cook and Van Cuylenborg, of Vancouver Island, were on a trip to Seattle to pick up furnace parts for Cook’s father on Nov. 18, 1987. They never made it to their destination. Within days, their bodies were found many miles away, and about 65 miles apart.
Cook, 20, had been beaten, strangled and left dead beneath a blue blanket south of Monroe. Van Cuylenborg, 18, was shot in the head. A passerby found her half-naked body in wet leaves off a rural roadside north of Mount Vernon. Prosecutors believe she was raped.
No arrest was made for more than 30 years. Then a Snohomish County sheriff's detective who inherited the case, Jim Scharf, decided to try genetic genealogy, using a DNA profile from semen-stained pants found in the couple's van and semen on the young woman’s body.
With the help of DNA analysis by Parabon Nanolabs, genealogist CeCe Moore traced family trees on the ancestry database GEDmatch. The mother’s and father’s lines intersected with the Talbotts, a Woodinville family with only one son, William.
Scharf put the SeaTac trucker under surveillance. One day in south Seattle, a coffee cup fell out of his truck. An undercover officer swooped in to collect it. Saliva on the cup came back as an apparent genetic match.