Innocence Project Asks Court to Grant DNA Testing in Case of Arkansas Man Scheduled to Be Executed on April 20, 2017
04.13.17 By Innocence Staff
(Little Rock, AR – April 13, 2017) The Innocence Project joined Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock in asking the Sevier County, Arkansas Circuit Court to grant DNA testing to Stacey Eugene Johnson, one of seven men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas before the expiration of lethal injection drugs on April 30th. According to the motion filed, newer DNA testing which has never been performed in the case could prove that Johnson is innocent of the crime.
“Mr. Johnson has steadfastly maintained he didn’t commit this crime for more than two decades,” said Karen Thompson, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “While opinions are divided on whether the death penalty is a reasonable form of punishment, I hope we can all agree that no one should be put to death where DNA testing could prove innocence, especially in situations like this one where potentially probative evidence from the crime scene was never even submitted for DNA testing despite a defense request.”
Johnson, who is black, was convicted of the murder of Carol Jean Heath, a white woman who was attacked in her home sometime on either April 1st or 2nd, 1993. Heath was found on her living room floor wearing only a t-shirt. The evidence suggested that she had been raped, strangled and then stabbed in the throat. Her purse was later found at a highway rest stop. Near the purse were two shirts subsequently determined by DNA testing to be stained in the victim’s blood.
Johnson was tried twice for the crime. His conviction and death sentence rested largely on biological evidence and the testimony of the victim’s six-year-old daughter who identified Johnson as the killer. A New Mexico police officer also claimed that Johnson admitted to the murder in passing, despite the officer’s failure to mention the admission in any report or in the detailed written statement he obtained from Johnson. Johnson’s first conviction was reversed based on errors relating the admission of statements made by the daughter, who had been found not mentally competent to testify due to her age. Johnson was again convicted after the circuit court changed course and allowed the daughter’s testimony. The second conviction was affirmed in a narrow 4-3 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The point at issue was that the trial court had sealed records created by the child’s therapist. After the trial, the defense was able to have the records unsealed and it was discovered that the child’s therapist believed her to be incompetent, that she had not seen anything, but was being pressured by her family into identifying Stacey Johnson. The jury never heard this important information.
Although there was evidence of a sexual assault, the limited sensitivity of DNA technology available at the time of Johnson’s trial did not allow for testing of sexual assault evidence collected from the victim and her home. This early generation DNA testing also provided no results identifying the murderer on the shirts left at the highway rest stop, swabbings of bite marks found on the victim’s breasts, and other relevant items. Johnson’s DNA was identified on hairs recovered from the victim’s apartment, which he readily admits he had visited, and a cigarette butt that was allegedly recovered from the pocket of a sweat shirt found at a highway rest stop along with the victim’s purse. Significant questions were raised at trial as to the provenance of the cigarette.
Despite the fact that the victim’s white boyfriend had a history of domestic assault, police never investigated him as a suspect. At the trial, it was revealed that the boyfriend had abused his former wife for four years, requiring her to obtain emergency custody of her children. It was also revealed that his abuse of his ex-wife included biting her breasts. Significantly, bite marks were identified on the victim’s breasts. Caucasian hairs were collected from the scene and from one of the shirts found stained in the victim’s blood. Presumptive tests for saliva were positive on swab from a bite mark on the victim’s breast.
According to the motion filed today, newer methods of DNA testing that have never been performed in the case could provide compelling proof that Johnson didn’t commit the crime. Evidence that could be tested includes: hairs, vaginal, anal and oral swabs taken from the victim’s body, fingernail samples taken from the victim, clothing worn and used by the perpetrator during the murder, and swabs taken from bite marks on the victim’s breasts. A genetic profile obtained through this testing could match the known alternate suspect in the case or to someone in the CODIS DNA database, conclusively identifying the person who committed the crime.
“This is not some sort of last-minute, hail mary pass. Johnson asked for DNA testing in earlier appeals, but those requests were denied by State and federal courts. There have been revolutionary advancements in DNA testing since this case was initially investigated which could tell once and for all who actually committed this crime. DNA testing that identified another male offender on evidence central to the commission of this crime would be definitive evidence that Mr. Johnson is innocent,” added Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project. “The risk of executing an innocent man is far too great for the State of Arkansas to move forward with its plans to execute Mr. Johnson without first conducting the basic DNA testing that would be performed in any similar murder case investigated today,” said Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig.
The motion filed today asks the judge to grant Mr. Johnson a hearing to present evidence as to why the DNA testing should be approved.
In addition to Innocence Project Attorneys Karen Thompson and Bryce Benjet, who are assisting with the DNA motion, Johnson is represented by Little Rock Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig.