DNA Technology Links Career Criminal to 1969 Cold Case Rape and Killing of Harvard Student

Michael Sumpter, a deceased career criminal with ties to Cambridge, raped and murdered Jane Britton inside her apartment in 1969.
Middlesex County District Attorney

DNA evidence has connected a rapist and murderer to the cold case killing of a Harvard student found dead in her Massachusetts home nearly 50 years ago, officials said.

The body of Jane Britton, 23, was discovered inside her fourth-floor Cambridge apartment on Jan. 7, 1969. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death. 

Britton had spent the previous evening going ice skating and to a bar with her boyfriend. They went back to Britton’s apartment about 10:30 p.m. and her boyfriend left an hour later. Britton then went to her neighbor’s for a glass of sherry and returned home an hour later. 

When she failed to appear to take an examination the following day, her boyfriend went to check on her and discovered her dead in her bed. 

Toxicology tests revealed Britton was likely killed shortly after returning to her apartment. A neighbor told police they heard someone on the fire escape that connected to Britton’s apartment that evening, authorities said. A second witness said they spotted a man running in the street near Britton’s apartment about 1:30 a.m.

For decades, investigators probed the case and searched for clues to find Britton’s killer, but the case went cold

“This case posed many challenges for investigators,” Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan said Tuesday. “Over the years we followed up on many leads regarding individuals with suspected ties to Jane Britton.” 

Ochre powder was found in Britton’s apartment, which a university professor had suggested was consistent with a Persian burial ritual, leading some to believe that her killer was knowledgeable of ancient civilizations, the Boston Globe reported. Britton, a graduate student studying anthropology, had spent the previous summer on an archaeological expedition to Iran. 

Investigators determined the powder to also be commonly used in painting, which was one of Britton’s hobbies. 

“This case had several ‘red herrings’ including the presence of red ochre at the crime scene which ultimately were unrelated to the crime,” Ryan said. “Over time as people’s memories faded and witnesses died it became even more difficult to follow up on new investigatory leads.”

Nearly five full decades would pass before the case would be solved. During that time, Britton’s parents died, the media followed the case less and less closely, and her surviving family and friends wondered if they would ever see justice.

“My pessimism remains,” Boyd Britton once wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

Then in 2017, after the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office received several requests for Britton’s file to be released to the public, fresh eyes began evaluating the case. 

Investigators consulted with the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab about whether any new advances in forensic DNA technology could assist in creating a more comprehensive evidence profile, and additional DNA testing yielded a match

Michael Sumpter was a career criminal with ties to Cambridge. Less than two years before Britton’s murder, Sumpter worked about a mile from her apartment. Three years after her murder, he was convicted of physically assaulting a woman he met at the Harvard Square MBTA station, located blocks from Britton's apartment. 

“It is believed Mr. Sumpter entered Jane’s apartment through a window, assaulted her and murdered her in her bed before fleeing the building,” the Middlesex District Attorney’s office said.

Sumpter was 54 when he died of cancer in 2001. He had been paroled to hospice care after being convicted of the 1975 rape of a stranger. Investigators were able to test Sumpter’s brother’s DNA to determine he was behind Britton’s murder. 

Britton’s murder is the third linked to Michael Sumpter since his death. 

In 2010, Sumpter was connected to the 1972 rape and murder of 23-year-old Ellen Rutchick in her Beacon Street apartment and in 2012, authorities announced he was responsible for the 1973 rape and murder of 24-year-old Mary Lee McClain in her Mount Vernon Street apartment. 

“None of the victims are believed to have known, or had any relationship with, Mr. Sumpter,” the Middlesex District Attorney’s office said.

He has also been posthumously connected to two additional sexual assaults. 

Ryan said this is the oldest case her office has ever solved. 

“As a direct result of their perseverance and utilization of the latest advances in forensic technology by the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab today I am confident that the mystery of who killed Jane Britton has finally been solved and this case is officially closed,” Ryan said. 

"We are grateful to the many members of the public who have expressed an interest in this case. Today we are able to provide closure to Jane’s family, friends and those who knew her.”

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