Saturday, July 14, 2007

Guest Shot: Despite conviction, DNA retest apt in elderly woman's murder

by Elmer Smith
Originally published in the Philadelphia Daily News on July10, 2007

IN THE US VS. THEM world of prosecutors and perpetrators, we have a rooting interest in seeing the full weight of the law slam down on the perps.

I get that. I also understand how going after someone as depraved as the killer of Louise Talley becomes more of an obsession than an objective. That is precisely the mindset I want the district attorney's office to march into battle with.

Talley, a 77-year-old Nicetown woman, was raped and stabbed to death in her bedroom in 1991. Anthony Wright, then 22 and an admitted drug addict, signed a statement confessing that he was the killer. A jury, noting the confession and the testimony of witnesses who placed him near the scene of the crime, convicted him of first-degree murder 14 years ago.

But the D.A.'s open-and-shut case is threatening to come open again. Wright, represented by the Innocence Project, is scheduled to be in Superior Court today seeking DNA testing of blood and semen stains recovered at the time of his arrest. DNA tests 16 years ago proved inconclusive.

The D.A.'s office is vigorously opposing new DNA testing. I want to believe it is fighting to keep DNA evidence out in the interest of justice.

Except that, for the life of me, I can't see how justice is served by suppressing a test result that could point to another perpetrator.

If Louise Talley's murderer is still out there, I want my D.A.'s office to go after him with the same fervor that led to Anthony Wright's conviction.

Instead, the D.A.'s office seems more interested in holding onto Wright than it is in being absolutely sure the crime is solved. That worries me.

The D.A.'s brief bases its opposition on procedural points that may make sense in the arcane proceedings of a courtroom. But they seem disconnected from the essential question of guilt and innocence.

Their key point is that since Wright's confession was ruled valid after he tried to rescind it at trial, "he is barred from asserting his innocence."

But the Innocence Project has proved the actual innocence of more than 50 defendants who had signed confessions to the crimes they were falsely convicted of, three of them in Pennsylvania alone.

The D.A.'s office acknowledges this. "There is no doubt that innocent voluntary confessors, while they are rare, are no exception to the truism that anything is possible," the D.A. concedes in the brief.

But the D.A. goes on to argue that the "law of case doctrine" bars Wright from "asserting innocence" once a judge has ruled that the confession was valid.

In an even-less-principled argument, the D.A. asserts that the DNA request was not filed in "a timely manner." Therefore, the D.A. concludes, "there is no reason for the court to address the merits."

But the Pennsylvania law, which allows for post-conviction DNA testing, sets no time limits. Besides, I never want to hear the D.A. argue against having a court "address the merits" of any case.

The D.A. argues that the trial record contains "overwhelming evidence of guilt." I agree.

The signed confession and the fact that Wright was implicated by people who had nothing to gain by fingering him, as well as by co-conspirators who may have been out to cut the best deal for themselves, seem to make an airtight case against Wright.

But I would have thought that about Nicholas Yarris, Bruce Godschalk and Barry Laughman. All were convicted in "open and shut" cases. Yarris, who signed a confession, was convicted and sentenced to die.

In all three of those cases and 200 others in which the Innocence Project has fought for and won DNA tests, the testing proved they weren't the murderers.

Even more important, DNA tests in half those cases also identified the actual perpetrators, several of whom have been convicted on the same DNA evidence.

If new testing proves that we got the right man, then DNA will have done its job. If it proves that someone else murdered Louise Talley, we need to know who that is and how we can convict him.

That's really where our rooting interest lies.

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