innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, October 19, 2006

DNA Test Result Casts Doubt on Two Convictions In 1987 Murder

This article ran in the Washington Post on October 3, 2006:

DNA Test Result Casts Doubt on Two Convictions In 1987 Murder

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer

Two of Colleen Williar's neighbors were convicted of murder after the 24-year-old woman was raped, strangled with a sock and repeatedly stabbed in her Baltimore home nearly two decades ago.

Now, a vaginal swab from the autopsy that was recently compared with DNA samples from the men might win new trials for James L. Owens, 41, and James Thompson, 47.

The men were convicted in 1988 during separate trials in which relatively weak physical evidence was supported by a last-minute confession by Thompson. He later recanted, and both men now say they were innocent bystanders who came under suspicion after telling a series of lies that began as an attempt to cash in on police reward money.

Defense lawyers said the case could mark the first time in Maryland history that a post-conviction DNA test clears co-defendants convicted of murder.

DNA tests, which became commonplace in criminal investigations in the mid-1990s, have led to the exoneration of dozens of convicts in recent years, including a handful in Maryland.

Stephen Mercer, Owens's attorney, said the DNA test yielded a profile of a man who is neither Owens nor Thompson -- a finding at odds with the state's theory in the case.

"Someone's gotten away with murder for 20 years," said Mercer, who this year persuaded a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge to allow him to have the swab tested.

Baltimore prosecutors say they are ready to meet their burden of proof again if the case goes back to court, a prospect Williar's relatives find disturbing.

"In my heart of hearts, I believe they did it," said William C. Winkler, Williar's stepfather, who raised her. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't have to take a deep breath to get through a thought."

Mercer, a Rockville lawyer who teamed up with attorneys from the Innocence Project division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said they intend to file motions seeking new trials based on the new evidence.

The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office opposed the motion to test the swab, arguing that the convictions were supported by physical evidence and Thompson's confession.

"There was a lot of compelling evidence that was presented," said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the office. Jurors "found that there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Not only did the jury find that, the appeals process confirmed that several times."

She said prosecutors will examine the methodology used to test the sample as well as its chain of custody over the years. Winkler said semen residue collected from the body could have been from an earlier, consensual sexual encounter, although a state witness testified that Williar had broken up with her boyfriend months before she died, and was not seeing anyone at the time.
Prosecutors argued that the semen was evidence of the rape.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.


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