LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - The Innocence Project has asked an Arkansas circuit court to grant new DNA testing to death row inmate Stacey Johnson. The inmate is one of seven men set to be executed in a 10-day span starting on April 17.
The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate those who may have been wrongly convicted. Their most famous case was the original exoneration of Steven Avery, who served 18 years in prison for a sexual assault he never committed.
In a press release, the group said newer DNA testing has "never been performed" in Johnson's case and could potentially prove he is innocent of the crime he's been charged with.
Johnson was convicted of the murder of Carol Heath in April of 1993. She was found only wearing a t-shirt. The evidence shows she was stabbed in the throat and raped. Johnson has maintained his innocence throughout his entire time in prison.
"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," said Karen Thompson, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, "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."
Heath's purse was later on found at highway rest stop, where DNA tests proved the purse was stained in her blood.
The Innocence Project said that Johnson's case "rested largely on biological evidence and the testimony of the victim's 6-year-old daughter, Ashley Heath, who identified Johnson as the killer." His first conviction was overturned once the 6-year-old had been found "not mentally competent" to testify because of her age.
In Johnson's second conviction, the daughter's testimony was allowed. The conviction was later affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Robert L. Brown said the daughter began seeing a new therapist during the second trial and Johnson's counsel were denied access to these new therapist's evaluation of the child.
"Had defense counsel been privy to [the therapist's] records," Brown said in his dissent, "he would have been able to delve into [her] conclusions that Ashley's stories were profoundly inconsistent and that she had been under considerable pressure from her family and the prosecutor to convict Stacey Johnson."
The Innocence Project said that the defense was able to unseal those records and confirm that the child's therapist "believed her to be incompetent."
The group is requesting new DNA testing because his trial at the time didn't allow for testing of the sexual assault evidence. They say while Johnson's DNA matches to hairs found at the Heath's apartment, he admitted to visting the location previously.
"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," the press release said.
The group also asserted that Heath's boyfriend at the time had a history of domestic assault, but police never investigated him as a potential suspect. During the trial, it came to light that his previous abuse charges included biting his ex-wife's breasts.
"This is not some sort of last-minute, hail mary pass," said Bryce Benjet with the Innocence Project. "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."
The motion filed on Thursday asks the Sevier County Circuit Court Judge to grant Johnson a hearing. If the hearing is granted, the group will present their evidence as to why the new DNA testing should be approved.
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