Hard test for freedom

DNA evidence rarely offers convicted prisoners a clear route to exoneration

October 22, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

A small meeting room for prisoners and their clients at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown has come to be called the "innocence cubicle."

This is where public defenders with the state's Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions, told James Thompson Jr. this summer that new DNA test results cast doubt on his rape and murder conviction. This is where, in 2002, they told Bernard Webster that his DNA did not match samples collected from the woman he was convicted of raping.

So far, fresh DNA testing has changed the future of six Maryland prisoners. This month, Thompson, 47, and his co-defendant, James Owens Jr., 41, took a major step toward joining that group when their defense attorneys filed motions for new trials. A recent DNA test showed that semen from the victim doesn't match either of them.

FOR THE RECORD - An article published in the Oct. 22 Maryland section, along with articles in previous editions, incorrectly described the legal status of Kirk Bloodsworth when he was freed from prison after DNA evidence led police to another suspect in the murder of a 9-year-old girl. At the time of his release in 1993, Bloodsworth was serving a life prison sentence. He had been sentenced to death in 1985, but that sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeals in 1986.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Maryland burst to the forefront of post-conviction DNA testing with Kirk Bloodsworth in 1991, when the evidence freed him from death row after a murder conviction and then pointed to another man who eventually pleaded guilty to being the killer.

Rarely are post-conviction DNA cases so clear-cut; only Webster's has followed that same track. The others have been shades of gray, with some prisoners winning new trials thanks to DNA but then pleading guilty - and accepting sentences of time already served - to ensure their release from prison.

That's what happened in August to Robert C. Griffin, the first Baltimore man to be granted a new trial because of DNA evidence. Instead of pursuing a trial, he took a plea deal that ended his life prison term.

As a result, the phrases most closely associated with post-conviction DNA cases - "exonerated" and "proved innocent" - have different meanings to prosecutors, defense attorneys and the public.

At a news conference about the DNA results, attorneys for Owens and Thompson proclaimed their case as "the first double post-conviction exoneration in Maryland."

"Yet another case of wrongful convictions," announced Nancy S. Forster, the state public defender.

But city prosecutors said the convicted pair have a long way to go.

"They're getting way ahead of themselves," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office. "To make such sweeping statements without the necessary and prudent documentation is not in the interest of justice for the defendants and for the victim's family."

William C. Winkler, the stepfather of Colleen Williar, the woman Owens and Thompson were convicted of killing, said news of the DNA test results has dredged up painful memories.

"Why are their attorneys allowed to say that they're innocent?" he said. "I wish they would tone it down a bit."

Winkler said he sat through every moment of the trials and remains convinced of the men's guilt. "If I had any doubt in my mind, I certainly wouldn't want anyone to be convicted of something they didn't do," he said.

1988 convictions

Owens and Thompson were convicted in 1988 in separate trials. Thompson testified at Owens' trial that he masturbated while Owens raped and then killed 24-year-old Williar.

Owens was convicted of murder, but not rape, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There was no scientific evidence tying Owens to the crime scene, his lawyer Stephen Mercer said last week.

At Thompson's trial, prosecutors said a pubic hair at the crime scene matched him and that a pair of his jeans was stained with the victim's blood. Thompson was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life in prison.

But Thompson's lawyer, Suzanne Drouet, said last week new testing has shown the blood was male and therefore could not have been Williar's, and that the hair evidence was overstated by prosecutors.

At both trials, prosecutors pointed to semen collected from the victim's body as evidence of a rape, but testing at the time could not show whose it was.

But if Owens and Thompson are seeking compensation like others who have proven through DNA that they were wrongly convicted, they face a long road.

Bloodsworth and Webster were eventually pardoned by the governor and awarded restitution for wrongful imprisonment. In 1994, the state Board of Public Works gave Bloodsworth $300,000 for his nine years of prison and in 2003 the board gave Webster $900,000 for his 20 years.

Michele Nethercott, head of the Innocence Project, said she and her co-workers have reviewed hundreds of letters from prisoners saying they've been wrongly convicted and have the DNA to prove it. Usually, the requests go nowhere.

In many cases, no samples were collected. If they were, many times they've been destroyed. A 2002 state law aims to address that problem, but Nethercott said police departments still routinely destroy the evidence.

Nethercott said the Innocence Project has found saved DNA evidence in 16 cases throughout the state since her unit was formed about three years ago.

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