Bombshell: DNA of suspected killer went untested for years in cold case

Posted at 6:11 PM, Nov 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-02 18:11:46-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The murder of Janna Kelly went unsolved for more than seven years, and as the trial for the her murder began Monday, the prosecutor revealed a bombshell oversight: the Grand Rapids Police Department failed to submit key pieces of DNA evidence years ago.

Kent County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Lee Fisher said the city's police crime lab simply forgot to send DNA of Kelly's accused killer, Robin Root, who voluntarily provided it in 2007, to the State Police crime lab.

Kelly, 60, disappeared from her Grand Rapids home Dec. 4, 2007.  Her body was found March 13, 2008 in Grand Haven Township, according to Ottawa County officials.

The oversight wasn't discovered until the cold case team in Ottawa County reviewed the case again in 2014, Fisher said.

Robin Root

Once tested, Root’s DNA proved to be a match to the DNA found in a bloodstain in Kelly's car. Root, a former tenant of Kelly, was questioned by police days after the murder, and it was known the two had a dispute over rent payments prior to the murder.

Kelly was planning to sue Root.

Fisher called the omission a "big oversight" that hampered investigators from closing the case years ago.

Responding late Monday to the bombshell revealed in court, the Grand Rapids Police Department said it collected roughly 40 swabs of DNA from people of interest at the time Kelly went missing, and that a "vast majority" were submitted.

“This was an oversight, it was a mistake," Sgt. Terry Dixon with GRPD told reporters. “It doesn’t weigh lightly with the Grand Rapids Police Department at all. We’re taking responsibility for this particular oversight.”

Dixon couldn't answer why a handful of swabs, including Root's, were never submitted, but he said the department is investigating to determine if any protocols or practices should be re-examined.

“It’s certainly a possibility," he said. "I’m not taking anything off the table. All I’m prepared to tell you right now is the reason this happened was a simple human error."

“We sincerely apologize to the family. This has been a very difficult time for the family, and knowing this has been prolonged seven years is very difficult."

Root later confessed to the murder, according to court documents, saying she pushed Kelly during an argument in December 2007, knocked her unconscious, and put her in the trunk of her car.

Janna Kelly

While Root confessed to the murder, Root's attorney said that  he will be working to convince jurors it was not premeditated.

"What you're going to hear, and there's no evidence otherwise, is that Robin Root did not intend to kill Janna Kelly," David Dodge told the jury in court Monday. "Robin Root had no motive, let's face it. When it comes to taking someone's life, that's such a high degree of wrongful conduct."

Kelly's sister, Lori Trutsch, was in court Monday and spoke to reporters following opening arguments and jury selection.

"It's going to be another step toward closure to have this dealt with," she said. "It's been a long time, a lot of years of wondering and not knowing, so it's going to be really hard. It's going to be a tough week."

The jury is made up of 11 women and three men. Tuesday, court resumes at 8:30 a.m. for the first full day of trial.