Inmate Leaves Prison After DNA Evidence Led To Dropping of Charges

James L. Owens leaves Jessup Correctional Institution on Wednesday.
James L. Owens leaves Jessup Correctional Institution on Wednesday. (Dan Morse - Washington Post)
By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

At 5:15 yesterday afternoon, a thick glass door swung open at Jessup Correctional Institution, a state prison in Anne Arundel County. Under sunny skies, out walked James L. Owens, an inmate who had been serving a life sentence for murder.

Owens, 43, slung a bag over his right shoulder and clutched an envelope in his left hand. He climbed into the back of a minivan and for the first time in more than 20 years rode away a free man.

"You can't give me that time back," he told reporters gathered outside the prison. "You can't give me that back. That's all I got to say."

Hours earlier, in Circuit Court in Baltimore, prosecutors dropped murder and burglary charges against Owens, acknowledging that they lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute him at a new trial. A judge ordered the trial last year after DNA tests on evidence collected from the body of Colleen Williar, a neighbor of Owens's, excluded him and another man who was convicted in her death.

Assistant State's Attorney Mark Cohen said five witnesses have died since the first trial and another is unavailable. Crucial pieces of evidence, including a knife, have been destroyed, he said.

Outside court, defense attorney Stephen Mercer declared that Owens is innocent.

"It's disgraceful that he's been in jail for 21 years," Mercer said. "He has to start his life over again. Today he is a free man."

Mercer said the case illustrates the need for "systemic reforms" in the Maryland criminal justice system, citing problems with statements by "jailhouse snitches" -- two of the witnesses who have since died were inmates -- and "junk science."

"Whoever committed this crime has not been found," he said.

Prosecutors stopped short of saying they believe Owens is innocent. Williar, 24, was raped, strangled with a sock and repeatedly stabbed in her Baltimore home.

Owens and a codefendant, James Thompson, were convicted in 1988 during separate trials in which relatively weak physical evidence was supported by testimony from Thompson that put both men at the scene.

Thompson later recanted, and both men now say they are innocent and came under suspicion after Thompson told a series of lies that began as an attempt to cash in on police reward money.

DNA on a vaginal swab that was recently tested did not match the DNA of Thompson or Owens. The test results raised significant doubt about the prosecution's claim that one of the men raped Williar and undercut Thompson's testimony against Owens.

A judge rejected Thompson's request for a new trial, but he is appealing.

Cohen said pubic hair that tied Thompson to the crime scene, lending support to his testimony, was among the evidence that has been destroyed.

William C. Winkler, Williar's stepfather, said he avoided yesterday's court hearing because he had been told that the charges would be dropped.

"I still think he did it," said Winkler, who raised Williar. "He's guilty."

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