She was killed 30 years ago. Police say DNA technology helped them solve the cold case

Sister is thankful for closure in Judith Doherty’s 1988 murder

On Tuesday, Sarasota police announced they served an arrest warrant in connection with the death of Judith Elaine Doherty, 23, of Venice, who was killed 30 years ago. Karen Aron, her sister, shares memories and thanks authorities for closure.
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On Tuesday, Sarasota police announced they served an arrest warrant in connection with the death of Judith Elaine Doherty, 23, of Venice, who was killed 30 years ago. Karen Aron, her sister, shares memories and thanks authorities for closure.

DNA helped solve another decades-old homicide investigation in Sarasota, police say.

On Tuesday, Sarasota police announced they served an arrest warrant in connection with the death of Judith Elaine Doherty, a 23-year-old Venice resident who was killed 30 years ago.

Officers were sent to Booker High School, 3201 N. Orange Ave., around 10:30 a.m. on July 31, 1988, when a jogger found Doherty’s body in a nearby field. Investigators determined she had been killed.

Sarasota Police detective Anthony DeFrancisco said Tuesday it was an “extremely violent” death. Doherty was beaten, strangled and sexually battered. Her body was found next to her car.

Police had evidence from Doherty’s case tested in 2009 at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement labs with technology that did not exist in 1988.

On Monday, an arrest warrant was served by detectives to David L. Stephens, 62, for homicide and sexual battery in connection with Doherty’s death, according to police. His DNA, they said, was at the crime scene.

David Stephens.jpg
Sarasota Police Department

Stephens is in prison in Arcadia on charges of armed sexual battery and burglary for a February 1989 incident that also occurred in Sarasota County. He is at DeSoto Correctional Institution and has been there since August 1989, according to DeFrancisco.

In that case, DeFrancisco said Stephens broke into a Sarasota County home and sexually assaulted the victim at knife-point while children were in the next room. He left the knife, with his fingerprint on it, behind.

Stephens was scheduled to be released in July 2021 before the new charges in the Doherty case. He has eight felony convictions, DeFrancisco said, including sexual assault with a deadly weapon, possession of cocaine and grand theft.

DeFrancisco said they ran the DNA collected from the crime scene where Doherty was found and entered it into the combined DNA index system known as CODIS, which produced a match to Stephens.

Stephens, who was in prison at the time the DNA match was made, was interviewed in prison by DeFrancisco. A current DNA sample also was collected and tested against that from the scene. It was an “irrefutable, very strong” match, DeFrancisco said.

There was additional physical evidence that linked him to the murder, according to DeFrancisco.

Before the DNA hit, Stephens was not on the radar in the initial investigation.

“It took several years of interviews and excluding people from the crime scene to get to the point we are today,” DeFrancisco said.

The DNA hit, he said, is just the beginning.

DeFrancisco could not say how Doherty and Stephens may have known each other, citing the ongoing investigation.

Karen Aron had been visiting the graves of family members, including that of her youngest step-sister, Judith Doherty, about five years ago. She prayed that before she left this world, her family — which had been in agony for 30 years — would see justice for Doherty’s death.

Weeks later, she got a call from Sarasota police. She was in shock.

“I’ve been praying for years. I’ve said, ‘As long as there’s life, there’s hope,’ and that proved to be true,” Aron said during Tuesday’s news conference.

Aron believes the power of prayer brought the case to a close. She expressed gratitude to the police who investigated her sister’s death.

“I know that she had hopes and dreams for her own future,” Aron said of Doherty.

“She could be a little bold at times. She spoke her mind. She wasn’t a fading little flower but she was a good person with a good heart,” Aron said.

DeFrancisco said family remembered her as a free-spirited, kind, gentle 23-year-old woman who loved her dog, her family and skating.

“To lose her at that stage of life was agonizing,” Aron said. “A life unfinished.”

Doherty had a drug problem and had been clean, though she had recently relapsed before her death, DeFrancisco said. That’s how she ended up in that area of town.

“She did not deserve this,” DeFrancisco said.

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DNA tests led to an arrest in another cold case earlier this year.

In September, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of 39-year-old Luke Fleming in connection with the 1999 slaying of Deborah Dalzell.

Luke Fleming, 39, was arrested Monday in connection with the March 1999 murder of Deborah Dalzell in Sarasota County, Florida. Investigators pointed to DNA testing leading to his arrest.

But it was a long road to get there, including a process called DNA phenotyping, which predicts physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence, according to the sheriff’s office.

In 2016, detectives got a genetic profile of the semen DNA collected from the scene. The DNA produced predictions and a depiction of what the person may have looked like and detectives were able to use that composite to “develop new leads.”

Fleming was identified by investigators and looked similar to the composite produced from the phenotyping process,the sheriff’s office noted at the announcement of his arrest.

A report received by the sheriff’s office on Sept. 14 identified Fleming as the contributor of the DNA sample, according to the sheriff’s office.

Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia-based company, uses genetic traits from DNA samples to predict the suspect's physical appearance, including ancestry, hair and eye color. The technology could help police solve cold cases.