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Tennessee refuses to allow DNA test that could exonerate a man 13 years after his execution

By: The Washington Post , Deanna Paul //November 21, 2019

Tennessee refuses to allow DNA test that could exonerate a man 13 years after his execution

By: The Washington Post , Deanna Paul //November 21, 2019//

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In the weeks before Sedley Alley’s 2006 execution, attorneys argued that a DNA test could prove he did not kill a young female Marine and could even identify the true murderer. Tennessee prosecutors, calling it an 11th-hour delay tactic, said Alley was not entitled to the testing. The court agreed.

Thirteen years later, Alley’s daughter is still battling for the justice she says he was denied.

“It’s too late for my father, but it’s not too late to find the truth,” April Alley said in May, when she petitioned the Memphis criminal court to test DNA evidence from her father’s case.

On Monday, a judge ruled that it was indeed too late.

Shelby County Criminal Court judge Paula Skahan held that Alley, who is legally responsible for managing her father’s estate, did not have a legal right under Tennessee law to ask for DNA tests.

“I’m heartbroken,” Alley said in a statement Monday after the ruling. Her lawyers filed a notice of appeal later that day and she remains “determined to continue our fight for the truth and will see this entire process through until the end.”

On July 12, 1985, Suzanne Collins’ naked, brutalized body was discovered in a park that neighbored the Naval Air Station in Millington, Tennessee. Her red Marine Corps T-shirt and shorts were strewn along an unnamed road nearby. The 19-year-old had been badly beaten, strangled and raped with a 30-inch tree branch that perforated her lungs, according to court documents.

Police collected evidence from the crime scene – a stained T-shirt, soiled bra and pair of red men’s briefs, which lawyers suspect were worn by the assailant – but did not perform tests to determine the perpetrator’s identity. The items are still preserved, stored in the county clerk’s office and untested.

Sedley Alley, then 30, was arrested later that day; his wife was also in the Navy and he had been near the base at the time of the killing.

There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, Barry Sheck, founder of the Innocence Project, told The Washington Post. He noted that neither the shoe prints nor tire tracks belonged to Alley.

After many denials, requests for an attorney and hours of police interrogation, Alley gave a lengthy confession, riddled with facts “inconsistent with the forensic evidence,” Scheck said. Alley subsequently claimed his admissions were coerced and repeatedly told psychiatrists he had no memory of the murder.

A jury convicted Alley, and he was sentenced to death.

In 2003, the Innocence Project, seriously doubting Alley’s guilt, accepted his case.

“This case has all the telltale signs of a wrongful conviction – a confession that has been demonstrated to be false by objective forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification, and, most disturbing, the refusal to test DNA evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Alley or removed the doubts about his guilt,” Scheck previously said.

Attorneys helped argue for DNA testing to exclude him as the perpetrator and possibly identity the assailant by comparing the results against a national registry of DNA collected from offenders and unsolved crimes

The request was denied, and on June 28, 2006, Alley was put to death by lethal injection.

Five years later, in 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled the decision in Alley’s case and clarified that the statute governing post-conviction DNA testing allowed a defendant to prove innocence by comparing his DNA to samples in a DNA databank.

Attorneys asked his daughter if she wanted to pursue civil remedies in light of the ruling. She said then that she wanted to move on, Scheck said.

Several months ago, Scheck was contacted by St. Louis law enforcement about a man who recently had been indicted on accusations that he sexually assaulted two women and killed a third: Thomas Bruce.

According to court documents, investigators “suspected he might be a serial offender.” Detectives said Bruce and Collins trained at the Naval center in Millicent at the same time and her killing fit Bruce’s pattern of offenses.

After learning the DNA evidence from Alley’s case still existed, the Innocence Project and Stephen Ross Johnson, lead counsel in Tennessee for Alley’s estate, filed the May request for testing on April’s behalf.

As of August 2019, there were 362 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, of which 28 percent involved confessions proved false through DNA testing, according to data collected by the Innocence Project. In 160 of those cases, the actual assailants were identified and convicted of 152 violent crimes, including murder and sexual assault, and 21 DNA exonerees served time on death row.

Alley’s case presents a novel issue: Under Tennessee law, can the state conduct DNA testing of evidence after it has already executed the person?

Prosecutors from Shelby County, who did not return The Post’s request for comment, argued only the convicted individual can file such a petition.

“One wonders why the State remains hellbent on preventing this testing?” April Alley’s lawyers asked in court filings. “Whatever the reason, the State is just as wrong about the meaning of Tennessee law now as it was ten years ago.”

But Sedley Alley’s is a unique situation. When he first requested a DNA test, Tennessee courts misinterpreted the law, April Alley’s lawyers argue.

“Now the court is saying the estate can’t get the same DNA testing Mr. Alley would be able to get had he not been killed by the state,” Johnson told The Post.

The estate, Johnson said, has been deprived of due process and property interests; if there was a wrongful conviction, it has a right to exoneration compensation.

“Why do we want to bury our heads in the sand about whether Sedley Alley was guilty or innocent?” Johnson said. The purpose of the statute is not just to exonerate the innocent, he said, but to find out who the perpetrator is. “The truth should not have died with Sedley Alley.”


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