, 2014

An innocent man?
DNA test ordered in 1985 murder case

by Audrey Thomasson

LANCASTER—A single strand of hair was the only direct physical evidence that sent a man to prison for life some 27 years ago.

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Emerson Stevens

Now, the Innocence Project of the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Law in Charlottesville plans to do DNA testing on that hair in an attempt to overturn the conviction of Emerson Stevens for the 1985 murder of Mary Keyser Harding.

The Innocence Project of UVA is part of a national group organized in New York by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld to investigate and overturn wrongful conviction cases, many of which resulted from poor lawyering or discredited police techniques, according to their website.

The UVA branch is led by Deirdre M. Enright, investigative director, and Matthew Engle, legal director, who work with a team of 12 UVA law students on cases. The group currently has five active cases in court and more than 500 requests from Virginia prisoners asking that their cases be reviewed.

The team began investigating the Stevens conviction in 2010, after another group of lawyers researching Virginia’s probation laws stumbled onto the case. They believed Stevens was wrongfully convicted and contacted Enright and Engle, who started reviewing court documents, legal files and talking to witnesses.

The murder case dominated headlines in the Rappahannock Record for over a year, beginning in the summer of 1985 when Harding was abducted from her home sometime during the night of August 22 or early morning hours of August 23. After a five-day search, Harding’s body was found near Morattico in the Rappahannock River. A rope and chain were wrapped around her neck and her body weighted with cinderblocks. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was asphyxiation.

The investigation immediately focused on Stevens after a truck similar to one he drove was reported parked near the victim’s home the night she disappeared. After Stevens consented to a search of his truck, police recovered a shirt “stuffed up under the seat.” Three hairs were removed from the shirt and sent to a lab for forensic analysis. Although DNA testing was not available at the time of the conviction, an expert witness concluded one of the hairs was microscopically alike to Harding’s hair and “could have” originated from her.

Stevens’ first trial ended in a hung jury. A second jury convicted him in 1986 of abduction and first-degree murder and he was sentenced to 164 years in prison. He is an inmate at the Greensville Correctional Center.

Recent activity

In his motion filed in Lancaster Circuit Court last week requesting DNA testing of the hair samples, Engle stated scientists have now concluded that microscopically testing hair was almost totally unreliable and should never be used. “A very large number of bad convictions were obtained based on hair analysis,” he said.

The UVA Innocence Project interviewed three jurors about the importance of the hair comparison testimony in the Stevens case. One juror claimed that “...without the hair, I don’t believe I could have found Emerson Stevens guilty.”

Another juror, who served as foreperson, concluded that “if the hair that was recovered from Stevens’s shirt did not actually belong to Mary Harding, that is important evidence that Stevens may not be guilty of her murder.” A third juror also recalled the evidence and supported testing the hair sample.

The motion also claimed the trial was “replete with perjured testimony and police misconduct.” It cited the original eyewitness, “the only one” who put Stevens at the Harding home that night by reporting the defendant’s pickup truck was in the driveway, was later charged with perjury for his testimony and convicted of obstruction of justice. At trial, the witness testified he had “...no interest in the ($20,000) reward.” However, a post-trial investigation concluded that he inquired about the reward when meeting with a least four different law enforcement officers during the course of his interviews.

The motion also contained sworn testimony of other witnesses who alleged that the lead investigator, a special agent with the Virginia State Police, had manipulated witnesses, withheld exculpatory testimony, and coached witnesses to leave out information that could have raised doubts about Stevens’s guilt.

Engle argued the evidence has been sealed and subject to a chain of custody sufficient to establish that it has not been altered, tampered with or substituted.

“DNA testing is supported by the Commonwealth’s hair and fiber analysts who testified at trial that one of the hairs recovered from Mr. Stevens’s shirt was consistent with the hair of Mary Harding,” said Engle. “If there is not a match with Stevens, then we need to match to Mary Harding’s tissue sample, which is also on file. That’s the process we’re asking this court to take.”

“This testing must be done in order to determine whether Mr. Stevens, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, is actually innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted,” he said.

Judge Harry T. Taliaferro III granted the motion, which was unopposed by Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Cunningham.

According to Engle, DNA results should be available in four to six weeks. If the results prove the hair is not Harding’s, the Innocence Project will file in the Court of Appeals or Virginia’s Supreme Court to overturn the conviction.

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