Kary B. Mullis: A lament for the loss of a life that saved many

Kary Banks Mullis, who died last week, may not be a name well known in the world of criminal justice. But as Rob Warden notes, his work certainly was.

More than a score of innocent men sentenced to death in 13 states have been exonerated and freed from prison in the last 26 years thanks to Kary Banks Mullis, who died this month at age 74 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif.

Mullis was neither a lawyer nor an activist.

Rather he was a biochemist, whose contribution to criminal justice and the innocence movement was accidental—but arguably the most significant in American history.

Mullis’s ground-breaking discovery was that heat-resistant enzymes found in a bacterium at Yellowstone National Park could amplify DNA.

Thus was born polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—a technological leap forward that six years after Mullis discovered it in 1983 ushered in the DNA forensic age with the exoneration of Gary Dotson of the rape of Cathleen Crowell in Illinois. Crowell, 16, admitted faking the rape out of fear that her boyfriend had impregnated her.

In 1993, PCR yielded its first exoneration in a death penalty case—that of Kirk N. Bloodsworth, an ex-Marine with no criminal record, who had been convicted in 1985 of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Maryland. The conviction rested on the testimony of five eyewitnesses, whom PCR proved wrong.

In 1995, PCR exonerated Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez of the 1983 abduction, rape, and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County, Illinois—a crime for which they had been sentenced to death based in part on testimony by two sheriff’s detectives, who had perjuriously claimed that Cruz had made statements implicating himself in the crime.

In 1999, PCR exonerated Ronald Williamson of the 1982 rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman in Ada, Okla. A former minor league baseball player, Williamson had been convicted and sentenced to death based on the false testimony of a man named Glenn Gore. PCR established that Gore had committed the crime—for which Williamson had come within five days of execution.

In 2000, PCR exonerated Earl Washington, who had been sentenced to death in Virginia for the 1982 murder, rape, and robbery of a 19-year-old mother of three—a crime to which he had falsely confessed and for which he had come within nine days of execution. To say that Washington’s confession was dubious would be a huge understatement. He didn’t know the race of the victim, or where the crime occurred, and he said she had been shot and stabbed two or three times, when in fact she had not been shot and had been stabbed 38 times.

In all, as of this writing, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, PCR has exonerated 494 wrongfully convicted defendants in capital and non-capital cases. In a third of those cases—including those of Bloodsworth, Cruz, Hernandez, Williamson, and Washington—PCR identified the actual perpetrator.

The factors that led to the convictions overturned by PCR—principally eyewitness error, police misconduct, witnesses with incentives to lie (“snitches,” in the vernacular), and false confessions—spawned criminal justice reforms designed to reduce error.

PCR also gave birth to 55 U.S. projects, mostly based at law schools, dedicated to identifying and rectifying false convictions and was instrumental in abolition of the death penalty in nine states that maintained it into the 21stcentury and moratoria on executions in four others. Nine other states had abolished it in the 1900s and three in the 1800s, leaving only half the states in the serious death penalty business today.

As important as PCR has been in freeing the innocent, its impact has been far greater in solving crimes that in an earlier era would have gone unsolved. As of June 2019, according to FBI data, the technology had produced more than 470,000 “cold hits”—close to a thousand per exoneration.

Such is the legacy of Kary Mullis, who was, to say the least, eccentric—at once brilliant, bizarre, and bitter.

Educated at Georgia Tech and Berkeley, he had a habit of enlivening his technical presentations with images of nude women bathed in psychedelic light—sandwiched between charts and graphs and microscopically magnified images of exotic molecules. He boasted of using LSD to remind himself— in his words— “of the complexity of things.”

A decade after his discovery of PCR—by Mullis’s own account—he was drunk when he received an early-morning call from Sweden informing him that he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

What could embitter such an accomplished person?

Money, of course.

His employer at the time of his discovery, Cetus Corp., awarded his genius with a $10,000 bonus—and proceeded to sell the technology to F. Hoffmann-La Roche for $300 million.

You might call that DNA amplification—and getting royally screwed.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch and co-founder of the National Registry of Exonerations from which some of the foregoing data and information on cases was taken.