Archive for Sunday, November 4, 2007

State supreme court says murder convicts deserve DNA tests

November 4, 2007

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— The Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled that two men convicted of a 1985 murder can ask for DNA tests to try to prove their innocence even though lower courts denied them the tests.

In two separate rulings issued Friday, the high court overturned earlier district court rulings that denied the tests on the basis that they wouldn't absolve the men.

Thomas Winslow, 41 and Joseph White, 44, were convicted of killing 68-year-old Helen Wilson in her Beatrice home during an assault and robbery. Experts testified at their trials that she had been sexually assaulted.

Winslow began a sentence in 1989 of 16 to 62 years in prison for his role in the crime, while White started a life sentence in 1990.

An attorney representing Winslow from the Nebraska Commission on Public advocacy said he was pleased with the result and expected to go back to Gage County District Court within a month to ask for DNA tests.

"I was probably as certain as I ever am that Mr. White's case was going to be reversed," attorney Jerry Soucie said Friday. "I was really glad that they clarified in Mr. Winslow's case that under the unique facts of his case he was entitled to have testing, as well."

Winslow took a plea deal to avoid a life sentence.

Soucie and White's lawyer, Doug Stratton, both said that the next step in each case would depend on the results of the DNA tests. Soucie said Winslow would decide whether to withdraw his plea depending on the results.

If tests did not link White to the scene, it would call into question the credibility of witnesses who testified against him, Stratton said. White's test denial came from Jefferson County District Court.

The state argued against the tests, questioning whether biological samples were still good and saying Winslow gave up his right to tests with a plea deal.

It was not immediately clear whether the state would pursue the case further. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jon Bruning referred questions to Gage County officials. A message left for the Gage County attorney by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.

Nebraska's DNA testing law came in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that rejected a request to do DNA testing on evidence in the case of a Lincoln man convicted of murdering his wife. The law requires the state to test DNA evidence if it is likely to produce evidence that someone else committed the crime.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains long sequences of chemical links that contain genetic information. DNA is housed in all cells and is as individual as fingerprints. Some death sentences have been overturned in recent years because of DNA evidence.

Soucie said he did not think the ruling was broad enough to say that if new forms of tests or evidence become available in the future, those convicted of crimes should be able to access them. He said it would depend on the case against each individual and how he or she were convicted.

"This case was based on co-defendant snitch testimony, which is, under Nebraska law, inherently suspect," Soucie said.

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