LIVINGSTON — A flake of skin that defense attorneys hoped would help prove their client innocent of a 20-year-old murder charge has so far yielded few definitive answers.
While defense attorneys say the tiny amount of DNA does not belong to Michael Wearry, who was convicted of killing a 16-year-old pizza delivery boy in Albany, it does not point clearly to another suspect.
The DNA analysis comes as prosecutors are preparing to retry Wearry next month on a count of first-degree murder in the death of Eric Walber, an Albany High School honor student and football player who was robbed, beaten and run over with his own car after he had finished his pizza delivery shift on April 4, 1998.
Wearry was one of six people convicted of the murder in the early 2000s, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for him two years ago, saying prosecutors withheld key exculpatory evidence.
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At a hearing for Wearry on Monday afternoon, forensic analyst Carolyn Booker testified that the DNA sample is partial, which limits its value insofar as identifying the source.
Booker said analysis of the sample came up with 34 potentially matching DNA profiles. Of those, 21 were excluded outright through further analysis, while 13 more were described as "uninformative."
"It's not an exclusion, and it's not a match," said Booker, who works for the Acadiana Crime Lab and testified as an expert in the case.
It remains unclear whether any of the alternative suspects that defense attorneys have identified in the case are among those 13 people. A lawyer for Louisiana State Police has refused to verify whether the alternative suspects are even listed in the national DNA database, Booker said.
The flake of skin that was retrieved from a blood mixture under Walber's car does not belong to four of the other people convicted in the case, defense attorney Rachel Conner said last month. At that time, DNA from a fifth co-defendant had not been obtained for comparison.
Conner said at Monday's hearing that she will be filing additional motions asking the court to direct State Police to release the alternate suspects' names and about the admissibility of the DNA evidence at trial.
"There were individuals in this case who confessed or were interviewed. We would like to know if their DNA is consistent with the profile that was lifted from Mr. Walber's car," she said.
Conner compared the DNA analysis with its imperfect degree of certainty to identifying someone as "black male, medium build, short hair."
"Those kinds of things, while they do not exclude tons of the population, do consist of information that a jury could weigh how persuasive they think that information is," she said.
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Also on Monday, Conner said she will be asking the court to require a unanimous verdict in the case, in light of the Louisiana constitutional amendment voters approved last month.
Twenty-first Judicial Judge Robert Morrison said he felt constrained in considering the motion, because the amendment language says it only applies to crimes committed after Jan. 1, 2019, but he told her to file it, regardless.
Another issue still pending is how much the attorneys will be allowed to say before the jury about the 2002 trial. Livingston Parish Assistant District Attorney Kurt Wall has asked that the previous trial not be mentioned.
Wall has also asked the judge for a gag order prohibiting attorneys on both sides from "talking to the media or the public regarding this case." In a motion, Wall said statements made by defense attorneys to WWL-TV in a news segment aired last month "have no merit other than to attempt to bias a potential juror at this point."
Conner objected in court Monday, saying she had been basically quoting from public records.
Morrison, who last month signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting media contact, said he believes it's important to limit comments to the media at this time in order to prevent more difficulty choosing a jury in Livingston Parish.
He asked the attorneys to work together to draft an order for him to sign.
A follow-up hearing is scheduled Jan. 7. Trial is set for Jan. 22.
Every evening for months after her son was murdered, Cherie Walber walked along road ditches in her area, looking for some kind of clue.