A small smudge found in 1986 could make the difference in whether a guilty verdict is returned in a murder trial, and if a long-standing Midlands cold case is solved.
The trial of the man accused of kidnapping and murdering a 4-year-old Lexington County girl zeroed in on the main evidence against Thomas McDowell: a partial fingerprint lifted from a window outside the family home.
McDowell stands accused of kidnapping and murdering 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez, allegedly taking her from her bedroom early in the morning hours of June 6, 1986. Jessica has never been found, and although McDowell was looked at as a suspect various times over the years, he was not arrested until 2022.
Fingerprint examiner James Hickman testified that he examined the fingerprint and a file print taken from McDowell, and had matched the crime scene print with McDowell’s left middle finger. He noted two previous examinations over the years have also matched the fingerprint to McDowell.
McDowell’s attorneys noted there is no way to know when the print was left, since McDowell had been there working on the house as recently as the previous October. Hickman said a date for the print can be estimated from the last time “the cleaning lady” cleaned the scene, prompting defense attorney Sarah Mauldin to note, “But you would have to take the cleaning lady’s word for it.”
Judge Debra McCaslin told the court she expects the trial to conclude Thursday, including potential testimony from McDowell. He has not indicated if he plans to waive his right to testify.
The jury watched video of the Gutierrez home shot by sheriff’s deputies on June 6, 1986, showing the front window with the screen removed and laying on the floor of the home, a stick believed to have propped the window open, and a packet of cigarettes and a cigarette butt that were found outside the window.
Besides the fingerprint, the evidence against McDowell is circumstantial. The cigarettes match a brand witnesses have said McDowell was known to smoke, but Adrienne Hefney, a DNA analyst with the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, testified that neither the cigarette nor the stick from the crime scene contained enough DNA to make a positive identification.
A graphic designer for the FBI created an animation showing that someone with McDowell’s height and weight could have fit through the front window of the Gutierrez home, based on visual estimations from the crime scene photos. McDowell attorney David Mauldin pointed out that the animation relied on the widest estimates of the size of the window, which had an opening of approximately 40 inches by 11 inches.
The trial got underway on Tuesday, when 12 jurors heard Jessica Gutierrez’s mother and sister recount the night the girl disappeared. Debra Gutierrez said she relives the day her daughter disappears every day, while sister Rebecca Gutierrez — who was 6 years old at the time — recounted how she saw a man take Jessica out of their room, wearing what she described at the time as a “magic hat.”
By Wednesday, McCaslin told the jury that the moon on June 5, 1986, was waning and only 5% of the surface would have been visible. It set shortly after 7 p.m., casting doubt on whether moonlight could have sufficiently illuminated an intruder.
Defense attorneys have argued that none of the evidence presented against McDowell is new; all of it was collected and examined almost 40 years ago. If the police had wanted to arrest her client, Sarah Mauldin, they could have easily done it years earlier. When questioning Sgt. David Pritchard with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, Mauldin noted Pritchard had interviewed McDowell about Jessica’s disappearance as recently as 2008, without making an arrest.
“No arresting or prosecuting agency tried until the FBI redeployment on the case,” in recent years, Mauldin said. “You never went and asked for a magistrate (to sign a warrant) on the case. No warrant was ever issued” until more than 35 years after Jessica’s disappearance.