A convicted murderer who confessed to killing an elderly western York County woman in 1981 has again asked a judge for DNA testing he claims could point the finger at an uncaught serial killer.
William “Johnny” Hullett, 67, has been in prison since his 1982 conviction for the killing of Bessie Kate Alexander, 69, at her rural home outside Smyrna.
His lawyers from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, who specialize in trying to exonerate convicted killers based on DNA testing and other advances in technology, claim that similarities between the deaths of Alexander and two other elderly women sexually assaulted and killed around the same time in 1981 in western York County “suggest the same person committed the crimes.”
Lead lawyer Byron Lichstein, a University of Wisconsin law professor, wants evidence slides connected to the deaths of Alexander, Mary Ring and Melva Niell tested to see if Hullett’s DNA is found. Cases such as these “are stranger than fiction,” Lichstein said. If testing shows Hullett’s DNA, he would drop the appeal.
York County prosecutors Monday scoffed at the idea that Hullett, an itinerant produce peddler before his arrest, did not kill Alexander. Hullett confessed both to police and his first lawyers in 1982, then pursued an insanity defense. Prosecutors point out that another man, Sterling Spann, already had been convicted of killing Niell. The Ring case remains unsolved.
Spann served almost 18 years on death row for killing Niell in Clover at about the same time Alexander was killed. His conviction was overturned after his lawyers argued that a serial killer had attacked all three women. Spann was in jail after his arrest for Niell’s death when Alexander was killed weeks later. Spann pleaded guilty before a new trial, despite maintaining his innocence. He was paroled in 2006.
Sixth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said Monday that Spann’s legal team tried to pin the three killings on Hullett, with promises that they would help him if he helped Spann. Hullett later recanted a story he had told Spann’s team about Hullett’s brother being the killer after realizing that he was either going to take the fall or implicate his brother.
“Hullett realized they (Spann’s team) were trying to spring the trap on him,” Brackett said. “Over 17 years ago, they were trying to put the blame on him, and now (Hullett’s lawyers) say it is not him. The only thing that would be stranger is if the victims walked into this courtroom and said they were in a nursing home in Florida the whole time.”
Monday’s hearing was almost identical to a hearing in August 2012, when Lichstein and Brackett argued the same points. That appeal was thrown out by Circuit Court Judge Lee Alford on a technicality.
Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III heard Monday’s arguments but made no decision. A ruling could take weeks.
Hullett attended the hearing Monday but did not testify. He sat below a screen on which a video played, showing him claiming to prosecutors 13 years ago that Spann’s legal team tried to get him to admit to crimes he did not commit. In the videotape, made by prosecutors in 2001, Hullett claimed Spann’s team “are trying to turn all this around and put it on me and my brother.”
In 2001, Hullett said that he wanted his DNA sent “to the same place that they sent O.J. Simpon’s DNA.” Simpson had been found not guilty a few years before in a high-profile double murder.
Even if Hullett’s DNA is not found on evidence connected to Alexander’s killing, Brackett said, that would not mean he didn’t kill her.
“What they are looking for is someone else’s DNA,” Brackett said, “and then they can say, ‘Aha! This must be the real killer.’ ”
Lichstein said DNA testing after conviction has exonerated several wrongly convicted people.
“Do the testing and address what the results show,” Lichstein argued. “DNA testing has proven innocence. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist.”