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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Man Sues New Jersey for Wrongful Conviction

This article ran in the Trentonian on December 17, 2006.

An Innocent Man: Browns Mills man sues New Jersey over wrongful conviction
12/17/2006

By RICK MURRAY
Journal Register News Service


A gruesome rape-murder nearly 20 years ago led to the wrongful conviction of a Browns Mills man for felony murder.

And now a prominent Moorestown attorney is suing the state, seeking financial compensation for the exonerated prisoner, who languished almost 18 years behind bars. Under New Jersey law, the award could amount to $20,000 for each year of incarceration.

The suit on behalf of Larry Leon Peterson, 54, involves the first murder case in New Jersey ever to be overturned primarily because of DNA evidence. It is the 180th such case nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, the team of lawyers that fought for Peterson’s ultimate exoneration in March of this year.

"Society owes Larry Peterson a lot," said William H. Buckman, an attorney noted for both criminal and civil rights litigation, who filed the civil claim on Peterson’s behalf last week in Burlington County Superior Court.

Buckman said the complaint names as defendant the state Department of Treasury, because that agency holds the state’s purse strings. But Buckman said he may also pursue civil action against the Burlington County detectives, who initially gathered evidence in the Peterson case.

"The case was not dismissed simply because the DNA showed Peterson was innocent," Buckman said. "Many witnesses against him gave false testimony, some of it because of coercion by original detectives."

Peterson is now working at a minimum wage job, unable to find better employment because of his prison background, according to Buckman.

Meanwhile, Jack Smith, spokesperson for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment on the suit. However, Smith did say the nearly 20-year-old murder case is still "open," which is to say that, one way or the other, the killer is still out there.

The Peterson case began on the morning of Aug. 24, 1987, when a woman walking her dog on a wooded path in Browns Mills happened upon the partially naked body of 25-year-old Jacqueline Harrison. Investigators soon determined the victim had been manually strangled and sexually assaulted.The investigation also soon indicated that the body had been mutilated, with a stick left in the victim’s mouth and another inserted in her genital area.

Harrison’s best friend, as well as a former boyfriend, reported afterward that they had seen Peterson, a neighbor, with what appeared fresh "fingernail" scratches on his arms. Upon hearing of the allegations, the record shows Peterson voluntarily turned himself in to authoritiesPeterson denied committing the crime, noting he had an alibi for the timeline in which the slaying allegedly occurred.

But investigators were also talking to three other area men, each of whom claimed to have heard Peterson confess to the rape/murder, while the four men car-pooled to work on a day in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

"Two jailhouse informants also testified at trial that they had heard Peterson admit that he had killed the victim," according to a case summary issued by the Innocence Project, one of whose founders is attorney Barry Scheck, famous for his DNA work in the O.J. Simpson case.

Ultimately, the most incriminating evidence came compliments of the New Jersey State Police crime lab, which microscopically analyzed three loose pubic hairs found on the victim. The lab determined the hairs matched samples taken from the defendant. Additionally, state forensic specialists testified Peterson’s pubic hair had been found on a stick near the crime scene.

Investigators learned that the victim had performed sex acts with two other men in consensual arrangements on the same fateful night prior to her murder, but forensic tests found no matches between the DNA of those two partners and any recovered from the crime scene.Tests on sperm and seminal fluid taken from the body, however, proved inconclusive at the time.

Meanwhile, Peterson testified on his own behalf, and several witnesses corroborated his alibi. Records uncovered by investigators also showed that Peterson did not go to work on the day the three men from the carpool said he confessed.

Nonetheless, in March 1989, a Superior Court jury in Mount Holly found Peterson guilty of felony murder and aggravated sexual assault. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, plus 20 years.

Unknown MalePeterson didn’t begin seeking redress through DNA testing until the early 1990s. By 1995, the Innocence Project took his case, ultimately winning a motion to authorize the Serological Research Institute (SERI) to undertake mitochondrial and other DNA tests on the hairs and fluids recovered from the victim and crime scene."

Although the New Jersey State Police Laboratory had reported that there was no semen in the victim’s rape kit, SERI identified sperm on her oral, vaginal and anal swabs," notes the Innocence Project summary. "Two different male profiles were found.

"One of the profiles matched one of the victim’s consensual lovers. The other profile belonged to an unknown male."The unknown male was found on all of the swabs in her rape kit," notes the Innocence Project. "Significantly, the unknown male profile was not found on the victim’s underwear or jeans, indicating that she did not put these items of clothing back on before she was killed, consistent with the fact she was found partially nude."

Most significantly, scrapings from the victim’s fingernails underwent tests that showed they did not match the DNA of Peterson, but rather that of the same unknown male profiled in earlier forensic testing.

Peterson’s conviction was thus vacated by July of 2005 but the Burlington County Prosecutor’s office decided to re-try him, despite the loss of the forensic evidence. Peterson’s family and friends struggled to raise the $20,000 for the defendant’s release on bail.

Then, in late May of this year, prosecutors finally dropped the case against Peterson and Superior Court Judge Thomas S, Smith signed the order dismissing all charges."I was emotional, overwhelmed," Peterson was quoted as saying at the time. "I have proclaimed my innocence for so long, and now others will know I’m innocent as well."
©The Trentonian 2006

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