It's been a full year since attorneys for James Owens Jr. and James Thompson, Jr. announced that DNA testing excluded them as the source of semen found inside the victim of a 1988 stabbing and sexual assault in Baltimore City, a crime for which they were convicted and incarcerated for 19 years. The pair - friends for years - became wrapped up in the high-profile Williar case when Thompson claimed to have found the murder weapon. Thompson, who suffered a head injury as a young man and was low-functioning, was lured by a police offer of a $1,000 reward for information in the case. He gave police a switchblade knife that he said was the murder weapon. Police pressed him for details on how he found the weapon and eventually accused him of taking part in the crime. In a Perry-Mason like moment at Owens' trial, while testifying against Owens, Thompson confessed that he, too, was at the scene of the crime, telling a jury that he masturbated as he watched Owens rape and kill Williar.
Owens was convicted of felony murder but acquitted of the rape charge. He was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. No forensic evidence linked him to the crime, although prosecutors implied that the semen was his. A jailhouse snitch also testifed against Owens. During Thompson's trial, prosecutors said a pubic hair found at the scene matched Thompson's and that his blue jeans were stained with the victim's blood. Hair evidence has largely been discredited, and recent testing of Thompson's jeans showed the blood stain to be from a man, not a woman.
In May of this year, prosecutors joined with Owens' defense attorney in seeking a new trial for Owens. That motion was granted. But prosecutors refused to join in a defense motion for a new trial for Thompson. In a decision released yesterday, prosecutors prevailed. Judge Marcella A. Holland wrote that while the DNA evidence shows that James Thompson Jr. did not commit the rape, it "does not show that the petitioner is innocent of the underlying crime of burglary, coupled with his confession stating that he burglarized the house as the victim was murdered." To Holland, Thompson's 1988 confession outweighed the DNA evidence. “It seems readily apparent from [Thompson’s] testimony that he indeed burglarized the home of the victim the night of the murder,” Holland wrote. “DNA does not remove [him] from the scene of the crime.”
It is grossly unfair for one defendant to get a new trial under these circumstances while a second defendant is denied a trial simply because one defendant confessed and the other did not. Owens was convicted, in part, based on Thompson's testimony. The DNA results prove that Owens did not rape the victim in this case -- in other words, they prove that Thompson's confession was false as it related to Owens. The two were inextricably linked together in this case. At no point did prosecutors ever maintain that Thompson or Owens committed the crime with a third party. It is far more likely that the Thompson's entire confession is false than it is that it is true with respect to his role in the crime but false with respect to his friend Owens' role, especially given the fact that there is not a shred of evidence to corroborate any part of Thompson's tale.