Driveway murder went unsolved 29 years — until cigarette butts cracked case, cops say

A murder suspect who eluded justice for nearly 30 years has been convicted based on DNA lifted from his cigarette butts, Georgia officials say.

Robert Allen Mowry, 53, was sentenced Dec. 6 to life in prison — 29 years after co-worker James Richard Harris was found dead in his driveway, District Attorney Clayton M. Fuller said in a news release.

“There were signs of a struggle at the crime scene, and Mr. Harris’s pockets had been emptied, his boots and belt had been removed, and his jeans were partially pulled down,” investigators say.

“A large amount of blood was found at the crime scene, however, in 1994, the capabilities of the state crime lab were limited in the performance of forensic analysis on the blood-stained items recovered from the scene.”

Harris had been beaten and strangled, with detectives concluding it happened “during an apparent robbery” outside his home in Chickamauga on Dec. 22, 1994.

The investigation was at a dead end when a tipster called authorities and “identified the suspect in the murder as a person named Allen,’” officials said.

Detectives then discovered someone named Robert Allen Mowry, of Tullahoma, Tennessee, worked with Harris at Miller Industries near the Georgia state line.

Mowry was not among the suspects, but further investigation revealed he was late for work the day Harris was killed and had a black eye, officials said.

“When asked to submit a DNA sample, as others had voluntarily done over the years, Mowry replied that he did not believe in DNA or the results from DNA,” officials said.

He was then put under surveillance, resulting in officers watching Mowry smoke cigarettes outside his home.

“Officers conducted a trash pull after Mowry had taken his garbage can to the street on trash collection day and obtained a large number of cigarette butts from the can,” officials said.

“The cigarette butts were submitted to the GBI Crime Lab for DNA comparison analysis against the blood from the jeans and tissue at the crime scene, and there was a match to Mowry’s DNA.”

Mowry was convicted of felony murder in a seven-day trial that depended heavily on the testimony of forensic scientists, officials said.

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