Amite — A man found guilty of a string of armed robberies 14 years ago will be allowed to use new DNA technology to try to prove his innocence, a state appeals court has ruled.
In 2001, a Tangipahoa Parish jury found Antoine Williams, now 36, guilty of three armed robberies in Hammond from the year before. He was sentenced to 99 years on each count. Hammond Police developed Williams as a suspect after victims identified him in photo lineups and seeing his photo in a newspaper, according to court documents.
Last March, lawyers from the Innocence Project New Orleans took on Williams’ case. In an application filed last spring, they pointed out possible problems with the state’s case — Williams is much shorter than the suspect victims initially described to police; officers used a five-year-old photo of Williams in their lineups; one witness first identified him after seeing his photo in the Hammond Daily-Star, by which point police had already named him as a suspect, which could have swayed her judgment.
The defense attorneys have even put forth their own suspect, Mark Watts, a man who they say lived near the targeted businesses and was arrested for property and violent crimes around the same times as the armed robberies. His sister-in-law watched security camera footage of one of the robberies and told a police sergeant she thought she recognized Watts as the criminal, according to the application.
Williams’ lawyers want to test fingerprints, items used to tie up victims and other pieces of evidence for DNA that could offer clarity on the case.
“DNA testing can resolve the doubt about Mr. Williams’ guilt,” they wrote on a subheading in their application for the tests.
The District Attorney’s Office objected to the request, writing, “in this case testing cannot resolve the alleged doubt and establish defendant’s innocence. … Test results that reveal either no DNA or none of the defendant’s DNA would not prove defendant is innocent.”
Prosecutors argued Williams may have worn gloves, that he may have naturally not shed enough skin cells to provide a sample and that he may not have touched the items long enough or with enough pressure to deposit a sample.
They also said evidence included merchandise that was left in a public store where it could have been touched by anyone inside, including Watts if he was a customer. The items also may have been touched by workers involved with the manufacture and shipment of the evidence.
“Items that are likely to have been touched by many people, such as a public pay phone or store counter, are usually not good sources for probative or interpretable Touch DNA profiles. Most forensic scientists will discourage the sampling of these items,” prosecutors quoted from the Journal for the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction.
Attorneys from both sides disagreed whether DNA tests would even turn up usable results. The DA’s Office said it would be “extremely unlikely” that the evidence collected in 2000 would maintain DNA from being touched during the robberies.
The Independence Project lawyers said modern tests have been able to use even small and degraded samples of DNA and mitochondrial DNA to obtain conclusive results, citing other Louisiana cases.
In September, District Judge Douglas Hughes sided with prosecutors, though for a different reason. In his judgement, he emphasized that all the robbery victims identified Williams as their attacker, including one who interacted with him for at least 45 minutes.
“In the case at hand, the identification of (Williams) as the perpetrator based on those eyewitness identifications together with evidence such as the close proximity of (Williams’) residence to the crime locations sufficiently negates any articulable doubt as to (Williams’) guilt,” he wrote.
Three judges from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and last Friday ordered the district court carry out the tests. They wrote the lower court “erred” by denying Williams’ request, which they said was based on competent evidence.
“There is a reasonable likelihood that the DNA testing will resolve the doubt and establish (Williams’) innocence,” they wrote.
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