innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Trial of suspected serial killer set to begin as innocent man is set free

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 3, 2007:

Trial of suspected serial killer set to begin

Chester Dewayne Turner has been charged with 11 murders dating to 1987.
DNA evidence links him to the crimes.

By John Spano
Times Staff Writer

Cliff Shepard gestured to where Andrea Tripplett's body was found among the weeds in a vacant lot at 7812 S. Figueroa St. It was 1992, and the epidemic of crack was raging.

Another woman, also a prostitute, was found nearby, murdered in a Porta-Potty, a green cord knotted around her neck.

Three other partially clad women were found near the intersection of Figueroa and 98th streets in 1992 — one in a motel, two more on the grounds of Charles W. Barrett Elementary School, Shepard recalled.

All told, more than a dozen victims were sexually assaulted and strangled along 30 blocks of Figueroa during an 11-year stretch beginning in 1987, said Shepard, the LAPD detective who eventually tied all the crimes to the same man.

Today, Chester Dewayne Turner, 39, goes on trial for 11 of the murders; if found guilty, he will join the annals of Los Angeles' most prolific serial killers, along with Freeway Killer William Bonin — convicted of 14 murders — and Night Stalker Richard Ramirez — 13.

Prosecutors say they plan to show jurors 10 DNA connections analysts made between Turner and the 10 dead women; the 11th victim was the murdered Regina Washington's 6 1/2 -month fetus. Police also say they have evidence that Turner beat or choked other women who survived in fights over sex.

His defense is expected to claim that Turner was a drug dealer whose customers were mainly prostitutes who often paid in trade, thus accounting for the DNA evidence.

Authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that jurors won't hear something that might shake their faith in the scientific evidence — that a different man was convicted of three of the murders they now attribute to Turner.

David Allen Jones served 11 years in prison before Shepard used DNA tests to prove he was innocent. Jones has an IQ of 60 and speaks like a third-grader, according to his lawyer, yet he confessed after interrogation to being a serial killer who had cleverly evaded detection for years. Jones received $720,000 in compensation for his false conviction and long prison sentence.

Shepard is credited with freeing Jones and arresting Turner. He has interviewed Turner four times, and the defendant has consistently denied killing anyone.

Earlier this year, a judge rejected a defense request to present to the jury elements of the Jones case, ruling them irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of Turner.

Police said they have connected DNA in three slayings originally blamed on Jones to Turner, but he has not been charged with those killings.

Defense attorney John Tyre made it clear that he will not concede the physical evidence. He suggested that decade-old procedures in the LAPD's much-criticized crime lab leave room for error — a legal tactic that worked for O.J. Simpson, who was tried in the courtroom next door to Jones more than 10 years ago.

The standard kits used to collect crime-scene evidence contain 10 swabs for taking fluids. Tyre said only 20% of the swabs in the Turner prosecution were tested for DNA.

"When you only test 20% of the evidence and leave 80% of the evidence untested, you never know what you're missing," Tyre said. "Maybe other DNA was not in the system to match."

Had the LAPD lavished as much attention on Jones' case as it did on Simpson's, very little would have been gained. At the time, Turner's DNA was not in any database and therefore could not have been traced to the crime-scene samples.

Turner was serving an eight-year prison sentence in a rape case when genetic testing in 2003 tied him to the first of the 10 women. There are no witnesses to any of the killings. There is a grainy surveillance camera videotape that appears to show an actual murder, but the footage is so rough that Tyre said it's impossible to identify either the victim or the assailant.

"The real problem is the redundancy of the results," said Barry Scheck, head of the Innocence Project, a group that has cleared almost 200 people falsely convicted. "If you have a number of victims and they have the same profile, and that matches him," the case is more difficult to defend, he said.

Scheck cited the freeing of a Buffalo man Monday who had been imprisoned for 21 years for rapes he did not commit. A schizophrenic, the man was cleared by DNA analysis, which Scheck said has been a factor in proving the innocence of dozens of others.

Turner is unlikely to testify in his own defense. Tyre said he is being held in the Los Angeles County Jail with several convicted multiple killers.

In his investigation, Shepard quickly established that Turner lived for many years in a house within several blocks of Figueroa and 98th streets.

Shepard takes particular satisfaction in solving the case in the area where he served for six years as a patrol cop. On a quick tour Monday, he said the area hadn't changed much."We had more than a thousand murders in the city every year," Shepard recalled. "Our homicide units were overwhelmed. Before they could finish working one crime scene, they were called out on another homicide."