How DNA evidence works
Brian Skinner has maintained for decades that he had nothing to do with the 1979 bludgeoning death of a Richland mother.
But on Tuesday, after another round of DNA testing, Richland police and prosecutors announced that Skinner, now 56, was the lone killer.
“We’re satisfied that one person killed Vicki Bridges, and that was Brian Skinner,” said Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller.
The news comes more than a year after Skinner was released on parole from Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.
Skinner served about 20 years of his 28-year sentence for a first-degree murder conviction.
He is back living in the Tri-Cities.
Contaminated DNA sample
Investigators recently discovered that an unidentified DNA profile they had long believed belonged to a second killer actually came from a forensic scientist.
That male scientist has retired since he accidentally contaminated some of the evidence during the testing process in 1997, said Miller.
However, his DNA profile was on file — just like all other state forensic scientists — and re-testing using an additional DNA extraction with new science revealed the mistake.
Miller wants to emphasize that it does not have any reflection on Skinner’s guilt.
“My initial response was I was taken aback, because that did affect our theory of the case during trial,” Miller told the Herald. “And later, as I re-studied the case, it made sense.”
“Actually, I feel better about it now because it always had been nagging at me that there might have been somebody out in the community that helped murder Vicki Bridges and was not held accountable,” he added. “Now I know we did hold the one person accountable.”
Claimed secret relationship
Skinner was one of a number of initial suspects in the November 1979 crime.
He said his only relationship with the 27-year-old mother of two was as a secret sex partner for about a month. He claimed Bridges wanted to keep it quiet since he is black and she was white.
Bridges was a single mother who had just moved to Richland and into her ground-floor apartment and was working as a junior engineer for a nuclear power plant contractor.
Miller’s theory was that Skinner, then age 17, and another man were in the process of a burglary when they raped Bridges and then killed her with a two-by-four. Bridges’ two young kids were asleep in another room.
She died long before technology existed to test DNA but samples were still taken.
1997 DNA tests
Investigators held on to swabs and other evidence from the crime scene and Bridges’ autopsy, and 18 years later had it analyzed at the state crime lab.
DNA linked Skinner to a semen stain on the bed where Bridges’ body was found, but other swabs came from an unknown man the lab identified as “Individual A.”
Skinner went on trial in 1999 and his attorneys first tried to discredit the DNA evidence tying him to the scene, then argued it was consensual sex.
The defense pointed to the mystery DNA and said police got the wrong guy in arresting Skinner, a father of four.
‘Rare situations’ in crime lab
Officials cannot say exactly how the contamination happened 22 years ago, but note that the Washington State Patrol lab take steps to avoid contaminating DNA samples.
“There are rare situations where contamination may occur, which is why the crime lab has taken the additional precaution of having DNA profiles of scientists who test DNA samples,” Miller wrote in a news release.
Nothing is perfect, Miller later added, highlighting how practices and procedures have changed significantly in a couple decades.
He complimented the Richland Police Department for not giving up on their pursuit of a second accomplice, even though a person was convicted 20 years ago.
“Richland did a lot of work on this case so I wanted to make sure that we got closure,” said Miller.
The prosecutor made sure to relay the news to the victim’s sister, Susan Remer, who raised Bridge’s children, before releasing it to the public. He said her reaction was the same as his — one of surprise, but also satisfaction.
‘Done wrong for so long’
Skinner was released from prison March 1, 2018.
Before he was released, Skinner told members of the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, “I’ve just come to a point in my life, if I would have put one ounce of the effort into doing the right thing instead of doing the wrong, I could have been successful,” he said. “... I’ve done wrong for so long that I’m tired of it.”
But Skinner still insisted he had nothing to do with Bridges’ slaying and said he was hurt that he was seen as “uncaring” because he would not admit to the murder.
Defense says mystery is not solved
Kevin Holt, one of Skinner’s two defense attorneys, told the Herald on Tuesday that he he didn’t know what to make of the news. He only got the announcement just before it was released to the media.
Holt said even though the other DNA profile now has been excluded, it still doesn’t mean that Skinner is a murderer.
Skinner’s DNA was found on the bed sheet, not on Bridges’ body, which supports the defense argument that he’d been with the victim earlier but was not there when she was killed, he said.
“There is still an unknown out there. Just because they cleared up one of the mysteries, they didn’t clear up all of the mysteries,” said Holt. “... I think it’s unfair to Brian just to be bringing this up because he got out of prison and they want to refresh everybody’s memory.”