New trial OK'd in murder case

Lawyer says new DNA evidence clears his client

sun followup

May 25, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Nearly 20 years after being convicted of a murder he says he did not commit - but now armed with DNA evidence that his attorney says exonerates him - James Owens Jr. was granted a new trial yesterday.

The ruling follows new DNA testing of old evidence that showed someone other than Owens and co-defendant James Thomson Jr. left genetic material on Colleen Williar. She was killed in August 1987 in her Southeast Baltimore rowhouse. Police said she had been raped.

No trial date has been set for Owens. A hearing on Thompson's motion for a new trial is scheduled for next month.

Their attorneys say the men, who are serving life sentences, were convicted with questionable scientific evidence, jailhouse informants and false confessions.

"Powerful evidence of the actual innocence of both men" was revealed by a single slide that had been held all of these years by the state medical examiner and tested over the summer, said Stephen Mercer, Owens' attorney.

This is the second time in Baltimore - and the seventh in Maryland - that DNA testing has led to new court proceedings for imprisoned men. In August, Robert C. Griffin became the first Baltimore man to be granted a new trial because of DNA. He quickly took a plea deal that ended his life term, meaning that he is free but he cannot say he was exonerated.

City prosecutors originally opposed the DNA testing altogether, saying it was irrelevant in light of other evidence. Days after The Sun wrote about the prosecutors' resistance in November 2005, a judge ordered the testing.

Abandoning his earlier opposition, Assistant State's Attorney Mark P. Cohen, head of the homicide unit, joined in the defense motion for a new trial yesterday.

Cohen said at the hearing that the DNA test - and the analysis of its results by defense and prosecution experts - showed the need for a new trial for Owens. Then he told the judge that prosecutors are "in no sense giving up on this case."

"We're not agreeing in any fashion to the guilt or innocence" of Owens and Thompson, Cohen said. Prosecutors did not say whether they will join in Thompson's motion for a new trial.

Williar's stepfather, who attended yesterday's hearing, said he was angered by the prospect of enduring another set of court proceedings.

"I know in my heart of hearts he [Owens] killed my daughter," William C. Winkler said. He said he attended every day of Owens' trial and then Thompson's trial.

Williar, 24, was stabbed and strangled at her O'Donnell Heights home. She was found nude, with a sock tied around her neck, on Aug. 2, 1987.

The investigation into the death of the phone company employee and community college student - and the two trials - were unusually dramatic.

According to court documents and testimony, police began investigating Owens after his friend Thompson claimed to have found the murder weapon. As police pressed him for details, Thompson told them that Owens had killed Williar, said Suzanne Drouet, Thompson's new attorney.

At Owens' trial, Thompson testified that he had been present during the crime. He testified that he had masturbated while Owens raped and then killed Williar.

A city jury convicted Owens of the murder but acquitted him of rape. Thompson was later convicted of rape and murder.

Their attorneys say that Owens and Thompson, both in their 40s, became caught up in the criminal justice system and had nothing to do with the crime.

Drouet said Thompson falsely confessed, and Mercer said his client has "maintained his innocence from day one."

Also at Owens' trial, a jailhouse informant testified. No forensic evidence tying Owens to the scene was presented, Mercer said. The prosecutor at the trial implied that semen in Williar's body was Owens', Mercer said. DNA testing was not available at the time.

At Thompson's trial, prosecutors said that a pubic hair found at the scene "matched" Thompson's and that Thompson's blue jeans were stained with Williar's blood. Hair evidence has largely been discredited, and recent testing of Thompson's jeans showed the blood stain to be from a man, not a woman.

Drouet and Mercer said they are unsure how prosecutors will explain the semen.

To Williar's father, the DNA testing and its aftermath are irrelevant. He said he is convinced that the right men are in prison.

Of Owens, he said, "We agree. You didn't rape her. But you killed her."

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