Oct 16, 2008

How the state can destroy a man with the point of a finger

Here is a story to make you contemplate our justice system...My question is this...What kind of quality of life is this man going to have after being locked up for 20 years for something he didn't do?

By Melissa Harris | melissa.harris@baltsun.com
8:01 PM EDT, October 15, 2008

Twenty years after a jury convicted James L. Owens of a murder he said he didn't commit, prosecutors today 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 sperm sample taken from the victim 20 years ago, before DNA testing was available, that was saved by the medical examiner's office and tested in 2006. The new analysis showed the genetic material didn't come from Owens or his co-defendant, 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 case 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.

Related links

Sun coverage: DNA used in criminal cases
O'Malley blasts critics of DNA plan

The victim's mother, Carolyn Case, cried as Cohen announced he was dropping the charges. She said the victim's brother had been one of the people to discover 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 sperm sample for testing, but he joined the defense's request for reconsideration 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. today, 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." Owens was released about 5 p.m.

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

Today, 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 today 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 sperm sample 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."

Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis refused to release Owens directly from the courtroom and instead required him to go through the standard procedure. Mercer said that Owens would not be available for comment today and that Owens' sister, who attended the hearing, declined to comment.

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Pookie said...

Just another case like Troy Davis, but at least in the Owens case the judicial system was willing to allow him to do whatever was necessary to prove his guilt "beyond a shadow of a doubt", and when there WAS a shadow of a doubt, they let him go. 20 years in prison for something you didn't do...how does the system that did that to him repay him for the life he's lost?

sKILLz said...

This is some fucked up shit all around.
The man who spent 20 years of his life in prison for something he didnt do. The life that was taken and can never be brought back.

both sides got FUCKED!

I'm not going to go into it because this is a touchy subject and I'm not in the mood to fight with people on the net because no matter what EVERYONE has there own opinion on situations like this and its very hard to come to some kind of medium.

Intresting story...
Stay Up!

the walking man said...

At the least he did get his freedom back. A nod to science. What is the state going to do for him now? He should be given a job commensurate with his prison experience.

But Skillz is correct both sides got the regal shafting here and it is unfortunate that Ms, Case can not channel her anger away from the wrongly convicted.

Lori said...

To the above comments:

The Troy Davis case is very high on the radar and I don't understand what the harm is in giving the man a new trial when there is questions about his innocence...

This is a touchy subject. I don't believe in the death penalty. One, I don't think it is up to us to take another life. Two, too many cases of people who might be innocent. Who want's that blood on their hands?

I also felt bad that Ms. Case is still so angry. I understand greiving, but, like you stated, she needs to find a way to deal with the fact that this man has been proven innocent.