DNA said to clear pair after 19 years

Owens and Thompson were convicted in '87 rape, murder of Baltimore woman

Sun Follow-up

October 03, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Two Baltimore men imprisoned for two decades for the rape and murder of a young woman in her rowhouse have proved their innocence through new DNA testing, their attorneys say.

The attorneys, who called the case the state's first double exoneration, plan to file motions today seeking new trials for James Owens Jr., 46, and James Thompson Jr., 47.

This is the second time in recent months that fresh testing has shown that DNA collected at a Baltimore crime scene does not belong to a person convicted in the case.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an incorrect birth date listed in several court records, an article in yesterday's editions on DNA testing gave the wrong age for a man whose murder conviction has been called into question by new tests. James Owens Jr. is 41, his attorney says.
The Sun regrets the error.

"When he heard about the results, he sat down in his cell and cried," said Owens' attorney, Stephen Mercer. "He really believed he had just been forgotten about in the system."

"I've been hoping for years this would happen," said James Thompson Sr., who is 70. "I didn't know if he would get out before I die."

Prosecutors say they need time to analyze the DNA results and that it is too soon to call the men innocent or exonerated.

Owens and Thompson were convicted in 1988 of stabbing and strangling Colleen Williar in her Southeast Baltimore rowhouse, during what police and prosecutors described as a burglary that became a rape and murder. The men are serving life sentences, Owens without chance of parole.

Semen was recovered from the woman's body and kept by the medical examiner's office. In May 2006, about two years after defense attorneys made their first request and with city prosecutors expressing opposition, the DNA slide was released for testing.

Late last month, the results became final: Testing shows that the semen belonged to neither of the men convicted. It is not clear whose it is.

Public defenders with the state's Innocence Project, joined later by private attorney Mercer, wound through numerous court filings and hearings as they tried to persuade a Baltimore circuit judge to order a DNA test.

The Sun first documented the Owens-Thompson case last November. Days later, the judge decided to allow testing.

As a result of DNA testing in another Baltimore case, Robert C. Griffin, 71, was freed from his life sentence in August after spending 20 years in prison. Griffin says he did not kill his girlfriend, Annie Cruse, 20, but agreed to a plea deal because he was unwilling to wait for a new trial.

Griffin's plea agreement ended his case with a question mark. The Owens-Thompson case could be much more clear-cut, with the men eventually being exonerated and becoming eligible for state restitution for being wrongfully convicted.

Prosecutors said yesterday that it would be premature to comment on their next step, which could range from opposing the defense motion for a new trial to joining it.

The DNA testing was conducted by ReliaGene Technologies, based in New Orleans. The laboratory, accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, was selected by the defense attorneys. Prosecutors did not oppose the choice, defense attorneys said.

The DNA sample was so small that no further testing can be done.

"Everything hinges on the professionalism and accuracy of the testing of one fraction of a sample taken decades ago," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

Prosecutors are having their own experts analyze the results and review the lab's standards and procedures, Burns said.

At the time of the Williar killing, Owens, a worker in a corrugated box factory, was on probation for robbery and, his attorney said, "probably not the most popular guy in the neighborhood."

Thompson was married, worked at a gas station and had a minor criminal record, said his attorney, Suzanne Drouet. A serious accident in the 1970s left Thompson with impaired mental abilities, his family and the lawyer said.

The pair - friends for years - became wrapped up in the high-profile Williar case when Thompson claimed to have the found the murder weapon.

From there, the police investigation picked up steam, the attorneys said, and Owens and Thompson were swept into it as the only suspects. By the end of the second trial, Thompson's, factors common in wrongful convictions would emerge: jailhouse snitches, questionable confessions and overstated scientific evidence.

"Once you get entangled in the criminal justice system, they're not going to let go of you," said Drouet. "It's a tragedy. These two guys made mistakes in judgment, but this is a heavy price to pay for that."

Williar, 24, was a phone company worker and Baltimore community college student, according to news accounts at the time of her death. She was found nude in her O'Donnell Heights rowhouse on Aug. 2, 1987, with a sock tied around her neck. A jewelry box and jewelry were missing, and prosecutors said there was evidence of rape.

Police offered a $1,000 reward for information in the case, Drouet said, and her client was lured by the promise of what he thought would be easy money.

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