Man freed after 20 years

Prosecutors drop charges based on DNA evidence in 1987 rape, killing in city

October 16, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Twenty years after a jury convicted James L. Owens of a murder he said he didn't commit, prosecutors yesterday dropped all charges against him in his retrial, making him the seventh person in Maryland to be ordered freed because of DNA evidence.

The key to Owens' freedom was a sample of genetic material taken from the victim 20 years ago, before DNA testing was available, which was saved by the medical examiner's office and tested in 2006. The new analysis showed that the genetic material didn't come from Owens or James Thompson Jr., who testified two decades ago that he was present when Owens raped and killed Colleen Williar, 24, in her bed in Southeast Baltimore.

Standing in handcuffs, jeans and a light blue corrections shirt, Owens, 43, expressed no emotion as Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Mark P. Cohen explained his decision to drop the charges.

Five witnesses, including two jailhouse informants, were dead. Thompson, who recanted his testimony almost immediately after the 1988 trial and whose conviction in Owens' slaying is on appeal, was refusing to testify. And Baltimore police destroyed the other physical evidence in the case, including the alleged murder weapon and pubic hair collected from the victim's body, because the case had been closed so long ago.

The victim's mother, Carolyn Case, cried as Cohen announced the decision to drop the charges. She said the victim's brother had been one of the people who discovered Williar's nude body, stabbed and beaten in her O'Donnell Heights rowhouse Aug. 2, 1987. She said he later committed suicide.

"They're both as guilty as can be," Case, 65, said, referring to Owens and Thompson. "Everyone has forgotten about my daughter. ... I have a life sentence."

Cohen initially objected to the release of the sample for testing, but he joined the defense's request for reconsidering the case after the results came back. Owens, the first person sentenced under the state's life without the possibility of parole statute, remained locked up in the meantime.

At about 11 a.m. yesterday, Owens' attorney, Stephen B. Mercer, entered a prisoner holding area inside the courthouse and, speaking through metal bars, told Owens that he would be freed. Mercer said he replied, "Thank you."

"That's all he could say," Mercer said. "He has been in jail for 20 years for a crime he didn't commit."

Owens was released from the Jessup Correctional Institution about 5 p.m.

"You can't give me that time back," Owens told reporters outside the prison. "You can't give me that back. That's all I got to say."

Yesterday, Cohen declined to say whether he believed Owens was innocent. He also declined to say whether he would agree to a new trial for Thompson, 49, who is serving a life sentence, because his appeal is pending before the state's highest court.

Owens' and Thompson's attorneys say that the men were convicted on a false confession, and unreliable science and jailhouse informants.

Thompson, who worked at a gas station, first appeared as a witness in the case. He had come forward with the murder weapon, a switchblade knife, after police posted a $1,000 reward for information.

During questioning, police accused him of participating in the crime, and to save himself, he fingered Owens, Thompson's attorney, Suzanne Drouet, told The Sun in 2006. But while on the witness stand, Thompson - to the defense's surprise - provided information putting him at the scene of the crime.

Mercer said police coerced Thompson's statement by implying that he was in severe trouble but that he could avoid charges by helping convict Owens.

After Owens' trial, however, Thompson was charged. A key piece of evidence at his trial was forensic testimony matching pubic hairs found at the scene to Thompson. However, Cohen acknowledged yesterday that the analysis done in the late 1980s is no longer considered reliable enough to match a hair to a specific person.

Mercer said that the sample, which he said was of sperm, has been used to clear one other man detectives identified as a suspect early in the investigation but that it could not be used to positively identify the killer.

"The profile is of the paternal DNA, which is passed from father to son like a last name," Mercer said. "It's only going to put the perpetrator within a paternal line. It's useful to exclude suspects but not include them."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

CRIME'S TIMELINE

1987: Colleen Williar, 24, is raped and killed in an upstairs bedroom of her Southeast Baltimore rowhouse.

1988: In separate trials, James Owens and James Thompson Jr. are convicted of her murder.

2004: Defense attorneys begin pushing for DNA testing of an unanalyzed sperm sample collected from the victim's body and saved by the medical examiner's office.

2005: A Baltimore circuit judge orders the new testing.

2006: The sample is released for testing and results come back showing that the sperm did not belong to Owens or Thompson.

2007: Owens' conviction is overturned and a new trial is granted.

2008: Prosecutors drop charges against Owens. Thompson's appeal remains pending.

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