, 2015

Report indicates DNA results in
Stevens case are inconclusive

by Audrey Thomasson

LANCASTER—After nearly a year of waiting on DNA testing, Emerson Stevens is no closer to proving he is innocent of the murder of Mary Keyser Harding some three decades ago.

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In a report from Bode Technology of Lorton to the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, forensic scientists said DNA testing was inconclusive even using advanced testing methods.

In late January 2013, Circuit Court Judge Harry T. Taliaferro III granted a motion pursued by Innocence Project legal director Matthew Engle to have DNA tested on hair that was used to convict Stevens of the 1985 murder of Harding.

1986 conviction

It took two trials to convict Stevens. The first ended in a hung jury. A second jury convicted him in 1986 of abduction and first degree murder, sentencing him to prison for 164 years and a day.

Stevens’ conviction was based, in part, on a single strand of hair similar in color to the victim’s which was found on a shirt tucked under the seat of his vehicle. The hair was the only direct physical evidence which resulted in his conviction and life sentence.

The police investigation immediately focused on Stevens after a truck similar to one he drove was reportedly spotted parked near the victim’s home the night she disappeared. That witness was later charged with perjury for his testimony and convicted of obstruction of justice.

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 Stevens’ conviction, an expert witness concluded one of the hairs was microscopically alike to Harding’s hair and “could have” originated from her.

In arguing for DNA testing last year, Engle stated scientists have now concluded that microscopically testing hair was almost totally unreliable. “A very large number of bad convictions were obtained based on hair analysis,” he said.

2013 DNA results

In the forensic report released late last month, scientists noted five of the hairs provided came from a non-human source and were not tested further. Four other hairs were determined to be human. However, three proved unsuitable for nuclear or advanced “mitochondrial” DNA analysis due to the absence of product bands. The fourth hair sample was inadvertently displaced from the tube during extraction and could not be processed further.

“We’re very disappointed,” Engle said.

However, the Innocence Project has not given up on the case and is discussing its options, he added.

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing. According to Engle, the University of Virginia chapter began working on Stevens’ case in 2010.

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