YORK — Lawyers from the Wisconsin Innocence Project have taken on the case of a York County produce peddler convicted 30 years ago of raping and strangling to death an elderly woman near Smyrna.
On Monday, they asked a judge to order DNA testing to see if a serial killer might have committed the crime instead of William Johnny Hullett, now 65, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1982 in the death of Bessie Kate Alexander, 69.
Prosecutors balked at testing evidence from 1981, saying that the type of testing sought does not find a perpetrator and is not reliable because of potential contamination of evidence. They also said the DNA test defense lawyers want could not be matched against a national DNA database of criminals.
Hullett confessed to the crime to Sheriff Bruce Bryant then a York County sheriffs detective. Property stolen from Alexanders home was found in Hulletts possession, prosecutors said Monday.
Hullett lost an appeal of his conviction, prosecutors said, and in several attempts at a new trial, he has never been able to show any evidence that he was not the man who killed Alexander.
To get a shot at a new trial, Circuit Court Judge Lee Alford said, defendants must show that new evidence likely would change the outcome of the case.
Alford heard arguments from both sides but did not rule on the request for DNA testing. It is unclear when he will decide whether testing of four slides that have a small amount of material on them will be done.
Testimony from DNA experts showed:
• The material may not be enough to exclude Hullett or any other potential perpetrators.
• The DNA testing would not be able to point to a specific person.
• The type of DNA testing Hulletts lawyers want to try cannot be compared to thousands of DNA samples of criminal in a national database.
In 1981, three elderly women in western York County were murdered Alexander, Mary Ring and Melva Niell.
Rings murder remains unsolved.
Sterling Spann was convicted in 1982 and served 17 years on death row for the death of Niell. His conviction was overturned after his lawyers claimed a serial killer killed all three women and that Spann was already in jail when Alexander, the last victim, was killed.
Spann later pleaded guilty to killing Niell and was paroled in 2006.
The slides at issue in court Monday were found in 2002 in the basement of a hospital when Spann was preparing for trial, testimony showed Monday.
Innocence projects from around the country typically try to use DNA evidence and new technology to delve into old cases that might exonerate defendants who claim they are not guilty.
Byron Lichstein, a law professor from the University of Wisconsin, argued Monday that any evidence available should be tested and that DNA testing in older cases has helped clear cases not just for defendants, but for prosecutors and police.
Lichstein also wants a necklace used to strangle Alexander, and her clothes, tested for DNA.
If it comes back and hits on a serial offender, that would be significant information, argued Lichstein.
But Solicitor Kevin Brackett countered that even Hulletts own DNA expert couldnt say the slides were not contaminated over the years with DNA from hundreds of other people because they were not in police custody.
The type of testing that can be done will not exonerate Hullett even if testing is successful, Brackett said.
Hullett has changed his story before, Brackett said, and the 1982 conviction came after Hullett confessed.
They cant say, Its not Hulletts DNA, so it cant be him, Brackett argued. All they would be able to say is that it would be a sample of DNA that is not Mr. Hulletts.
Hullett, a state prisoner for 30 years who lived north of Clover before his arrest, did not testify.
Andrew Dys 803-329-4065