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Not guilty verdict in 16-year-old DNA case

Paul Sampson is found innocent of charges on

Paul Sampson is found innocent of charges on a cold case and speaks in his lawyer's office in Mineola, New York. (June 8, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Hempstead man was found not guilty of a 16-year-old murder Friday, in a verdict that rejected the prosecution's claim that he'd been tied to the crime scene by newly discovered DNA evidence.

Paul Sampson, 66, left the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola in the late afternoon -- free for the first time in more than a year, when he was arrested on charges that he murdered Vilma Portillo in September 1995.

Portillo's daughter, Maribel Rodriguez of Hempstead, who was 23 when her mother was killed, collapsed in tears when the jury foreman read the verdict. She left court afterward without commenting.

"I feel for that family," Sampson said, sitting in his lawyer's office. "I can't imagine what they're going through; not being able to find any resolution."

He said he can't wait to go home to his wife and 86-year-old mother. Going forward, he said, "I want to make a difference. I want to give back to humanity."

Portillo, 61, of Uniondale, was beaten and shot in the head as she sat in her red Toyota pickup truck outside the New Cassel company where she worked as a janitor. A mother of eight and grandmother of 18, she was days from retirement when she was killed, police said.

Using new technology, prosecutors said they matched DNA found on a sweatshirt found near the murder scene to Sampson. The sweatshirt also had Portillo's blood on it.

Prosecutor Zeena Abdi said in court that Sampson probably knew Portillo's habits, and waited for her to leave the job that Thursday -- a payday and also the day she sold clothing to co-workers. Sampson didn't work there, but his nephew was a former co-worker of Portillo's, Abdi said.

But Sampson's defense lawyer, William Shanahan, of Mineola, argued that the sweatshirt could have been inadvertently contaminated with blood, and that the nephew or someone else may have borrowed Sampson's sweatshirt.

Shanahan said there were other problems with the prosecution's case including witnesses who testified that they saw a much younger man fire the gun.

The jury deliberated about 20 hours over three days, telling Judge David Ayres at one point that they had reached an impasse, and could not agree on a verdict.

"I'm glad the jury had the courage to set aside sympathy and render a verdict based only on the evidence," Shanahan said.

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