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16-year-old DNA murder case goes to jury

Paul Sampson, 65, of Hempstead, who is charged

Paul Sampson, 65, of Hempstead, who is charged with second-dgree murder in the death of Vilma Portillo, is escorted out of Nassau County Police Headquarters in Mineola. (April 21, 2011) Credit: Photo by Howard Schnapp

A Nassau County jury has begun deliberations in a 16-year-old murder case built on a DNA match that was not possible at the time of the crime.

Police investigating the 1995 murder of Vilma Portillo say that, using new technology, they matched DNA found on a sweatsuit left near the murder scene to Paul Sampson, now 66, of Hempstead. The sweatshirt also had Portillo's blood on it.

"He didn't know he had left a piece of himself behind, but he had," prosecutor Zeena Abdi said in her closing statement Wednesday morning. "Vilma Portillo's family had been waiting for justice 16 years. She deserved better than to die the way she did."

Wednesday, the jury retired after four hours without reaching a verdict.

Portillo, 61, a mother of eight and grandmother of 18 from Uniondale, was days away from retiring from her job as a janitor at the E-Z-EM pharmaceutical and medical device company in New Cassel when she was beaten and shot in the head as she sat in her red Toyota pickup truck in a parking lot outside the Main Street company, police have said.

Abdi said in court that Sampson probably knew Portillo's habits, and waited for her to leave the job that Thursday, payday and also the day she sold clothing to co-workers. She was robbed of $4,000. Sampson's nephew was a former co-worker of Portillo's, Abdi said.

But Sampson's attorney, William Shanahan of Mineola, contended there are problems with the prosecution's case. Witnesses testified that they saw a much younger man fire the gun, and at least one said the man wore a white lab coat, similar to ones worn by employees at Portillo's company, he said. Sampson never worked there.

Shanahan also said witnesses said the killer fled as fast as a "jackrabbit." But Sampson, then 50, walked with a cane and later needed hip surgery, he said.

Shanahan said because there were "only a few drops" of blood on the sweatshirt, it's possible a detective could have transferred blood on to it accidentally. "You can't use Mr. Sampson as a scapegoat just because his name popped up as a DNA hit," he said. "He had no connection to this woman."

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