A question of innocence

October 09, 2006

James Owens Jr. believed he would die in prison. Sentenced to life without parole for a rape-murder, he saw no other future - until last week, when a DNA test cast serious doubt on his conviction in the 1987 slaying of a young Southeast Baltimore woman.

The testing, opposed by prosecutors and delayed by a judge, supports claims of innocence by Mr. Owens and his co-defendant, James Thompson Jr., who is serving a life sentence. It reaffirms the potential of this technology to identify innocence - and guilt - and underscores why requests for post-conviction DNA testing should be handled swiftly and judiciously.

The integrity of the judicial system and the search for the truth depend on it.

Although Maryland has one of the more progressive laws in the country on post-conviction DNA testing, it took lawyers for Mr. Thompson and Mr. Owens nearly 18 months to win approval to test semen found at the scene of the robbery and stabbing of 24-year-old Colleen Williar. Baltimore prosecutors opposed the testing, in part because Mr. Thompson had confessed at trial to being present at the murder, which he said was done by his friend, Mr. Owens. After sitting on the DNA motion for a year, a judge denied it in late 2005 and then changed her mind a month later after more review.

When the two men were convicted of Ms. Williar's murder, DNA testing had yet to make a name for itself in questions of innocence. The state's cases against the defendants, as relayed by their attorneys, read like the stuff of TV crime scene dramas: circumstantial evidence, a jailhouse snitch, a blood stain, a suspect murder weapon, and Mr. Thompson's courtroom confession at Mr. Owens' trial, which followed police claims they had the goods on him (which wasn't true). Prosecutors contended that Mr. Owens raped the victim. Mr. Thompson said he watched and participated in a lesser way and was convicted in a separate trial.

But DNA testing on a piece of evidence squirreled away in the medical examiner's office has ruled out Mr. Thompson and Mr. Owens as the rapist.

That finding is at the heart of their requests for new trials, which should be handled expeditiously. Each has been sitting in prison for 19 years, and if they are granted new trials, city prosecutors will have to weigh the impact of the DNA evidence on their case.

DNA testing doesn't prove innocence, but its impact on criminal prosecutions can't be underestimated. It has exposed poor lawyering and serious breaches of ethics. It has poked holes in alibis, ruled out suspects and revealed the fallibility of eyewitness testimony. It keeps the judicial system honest - and that's essential.

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