Daniel Rubin: Let convict take a DNA test

Posted: March 03, 2011

Maybe Anthony Wright did rape and kill his 77-year-old neighbor back in 1991 on Nice Street. The evidence certainly pointed to him.

He signed a confession, admitting he needed money for drugs when he went to rob Louise Talley, and since he knew her, he had no choice but to stab her. Two roommates from the nearby crack house helped him remove the widow's TV, clock radio, and purse, according to the statement.

Police found bloodstained clothes under the 20-year-old's mattress - a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and blue jeans that matched what he said he'd been wearing the day Talley's naked body was found facedown on the bedroom floor of her Nicetown apartment.

A jury found Wright guilty in 1993 but balked at sentencing him to death. Even his attorney thought life in prison sounded fair, saying his client, a 10th-grade dropout, grew up "flawed," barely cared for by a constantly drunk mother. "He came from a background of abuse, alcoholism, and drug use," attorney Bernard L. Siegel said then.

Case closed, right? Not exactly.

For 20 years Wright has contended he's innocent, accusing detectives of typing a confession and forcing him to sign it by handcuffing him to a chair and threatening to "rip his eyes out." The session wasn't recorded.

He was working his construction job the day of the murder, he says, and the clothes that the police carted out of his apartment weren't his - something his mother contends as well.

The prisons are filled with guilty people who profess their innocence, but what if Anthony Wright is right?

At the time, DNA testing wasn't sophisticated enough to pin him to the crime. But it is now. Or it could exonerate him, and point to someone else.

Should he be entitled to the best evidence available? Shouldn't we?

The state legislature wrote a 2002 law that would seem to approve DNA testing for those convicted before 1995, when the science of identification vastly improved. The law was prompted by the release from prison of Bruce Godschalk of Montgomery County, who had served 15 years for two rapes before DNA testing exonerated him.

Like Wright, Godschalk contended his confession had been coerced - written for him by detectives.

Wright hadn't been so fortunate in court. Four judges and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office had opposed testing him.

Then last week, after 51/2 years of pleading, Wright got some good news. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a confession doesn't bar a convict from access to DNA testing.

The ball is back in Common Pleas Court, where new District Attorney Seth Williams gets to decide whether to keep fighting Wright's request.

The Innocence Project, an organization associated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, has offered to pay the estimated $5,000 cost of trying to match Wright's DNA with samples found at the crime scene.

Of 266 cases nationwide that have been overturned based on DNA testing, 25 percent have involved people who confessed to crimes - willingly or unwillingly, said Nina Morrison, an Innocence Project lawyer who represents Wright for free.

"The commonwealth has nothing to lose and everything to gain from doing a DNA test," she said this week. "It's a new day in Philadelphia. We're really hopeful the district attorney's administration will look at this case with fresh eyes. Our hope is that he's committed to getting to the truth no matter where it leads."

Two years ago, prosecutor Hugh Burns wrote a letter to the Inquirer, arguing that Wright was not entitled to "do-over." "The law does not call for new DNA testing at the whim of the convict," the chief of the appeals unit wrote. "It requires a reasonable possibility that testing will produce exculpatory results. There isn't one here."

This week, a spokeswoman for the district attorney said prosecutors were reviewing the Supreme Court's ruling.

Test the man, and be done with it.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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