Sunday, 3 August 2008

Alabama must improve handling of key evidence

Alabama must improve handling of key evidence

Published: Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 9:40 p.m.
Alabama Attorney General Troy King calls Bobby Gilbert, whose 11th-hour murder confession apparently led the state Supreme Court to delay the execution of Thomas Arthur, 'an incredible person' — meaning that Gilbert lacks credibility.

That may be. At the same time, however, it's incredible that the state has lost a key piece of evidence in the murder case — one that could show whether Gilbert lied or told the truth when he confessed.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to stay Arthur's execution, which had been scheduled for Thursday. Arthur was convicted in the murder-for-hire slaying of Troy Wicker Jr. in Muscle Shoals in 1982.

Wicker's wife, Judy, initially told law enforcement authorities that a black man raped her and killed her husband. Later, in a deal with prosecutors to get out of prison, she changed her story, saying the murderer was Arthur.

The prosecution offered no physical evidence linking Arthur to the crime; he was convicted largely on the strength of Judy Wicker's testimony. But last week, Gilbert, an inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, confessed to the murder.

DNA testing could readily show whether Gilbert is telling the truth. However, Clay Crenshaw, head of the attorney general's capital litigation section, said Mrs. Wicker's rape kit has been lost.

He said he has asked the Muscle Shoals Police Department, the Colbert County District Attorney's Office and the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for the kit but none of them knew where it was.

Further clouding the picture, it's not even certain who had responsibility for this key piece of evidence. Assistant Attorney General Jasper Roberts Jr. said he's unsure what the evidence preservation procedure was at the time of the crime.

The lapse is stunning. Alabama has never provided adequate funding for criminal investigation — the Department of Forensic Sciences has been particularly shortchanged — yet we have one of the highest-paid attorneys general in the country. Arthur's attorney, Suhana Han, wants to know why King's office is only now inquiring about the rape kit when defense lawyers have been litigating for it since 2002.

It's a good question.

Arthur may be guilty of Wicker's slaying. However, the state needs to make sure the evidence against him is solid before it puts him to death. That's one of the reasons why the rape kit loss is unpardonable.

There is a cautionary tale for Alabama in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence implicating Simpson in the brutal murders of his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Brown, in Los Angeles in 1994. However, sloppy or casual handling of evidence — some of which was lost — was a major factor in Simpson's acquittal.

Attention to proper evidence handling is as crucial in Alabama as it is in California.

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