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(Jackson, TN; June 17, 2011) – The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a Memphis man, who has served 30 years for two rapes that he has always maintained he did not commit, is entitled to DNA testing that might prove his innocence.
“The court rightly recognized that state law requires broad access to DNA testing when it might show that someone was wrongly convicted,” said Craig Cooley, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This is incredibly exciting news for our client who has been fighting for access to the testing for more than three years.”
Rudolph Powers was twenty years old and had no criminal history when he was arrested in the spring of 1980 by the Memphis police for two rapes that occurred near the Southgate Shopping Center where he worked. Powers, who claimed that he was misidentified by the victims, was tried separately for each rape, but the court ruled that the similarities between the two crimes made it a “signature” crime and allowed both victims to identify him in each trial. He was convicted in both cases and sentenced to life in prison.
After exhausting all appeals, Powers sought the help of the Innocence Project and petitioned for DNA testing under the state law. The physical evidence that was recovered from the victim has been lost or destroyed in one of the cases, but it has been located in the other. The local District Attorney and the state Attorney General fought testing in the case, claiming that even if the DNA recovered from the evidence didn’t match Powers, it wouldn’t mean that Powers wasn’t guilty because the victim had consensual sex with someone prior to the attack. The trial and intermediate appeals courts agreed.
The Tennessee Supreme Court rejected this argument and found that since the state relied on the presence of semen as proof of Power’s guilt, results showing that the semen belonged to someone other than Powers would establish “a reasonable probability that the petitioner would not have been convicted” if Powers had access to this exculpatory evidence at trial.
The court remanded the case back to the trial court for testing. The court’s decision makes it relatively clear that if the testing is able to recover male DNA that does not match Powers, his conviction should be overturned, and he will be entitled to a new trial.
“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Powers has had to fight so long for access to this testing, but this decision sends a very clear message that DNA testing should be granted under the state statute when it might be probative,” added Cooley. “This will be a huge help to other people in Tennessee prisons who are seeking to prove their innocence through DNA.”