- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) — New DNA tests show that two convicts who have spent nearly 20 years behind bars are not guilty of the rape and murder of a young woman found dead in her row home, attorneys for the pair say.

Prosecutors said that they are reviewing the private test and have not yet decided whether to support or oppose the call for a new trial.

James Owens Jr., 46, and James Thompson Jr., 47, were convicted in 1988 of stabbing and strangling Colleen Williar during what police and prosecutors described as a burglary that became a rape and murder.

The two are serving life sentences, Owens without chance of parole.

The new tests were conducted on semen recovered from the woman’s body and kept by the medical examiner’s office.

Despite opposition by prosecutors, the sample was released in May for testing, about two years after defense attorneys made their first request.

Tests results became available late last month, showing the semen did not belong to Owens or Thompson.

“When he heard about the results, he sat down in his cell and cried,” Owens’ attorney, Stephen Mercer, told the Baltimore Sun. “He really believed he had just been forgotten about in the system.”

“I’ve been hoping for years this would happen,” said James Thompson Sr., 70, who is Thompson’s father. “I didn’t know if he would get out before I die.”

The DNA testing was conducted by New Orleans-based ReliaGene Technologies, which was selected by the defense. The DNA sample was so small that no further testing can be done.

“Everything hinges on the professionalism and accuracy of the testing of one fraction of a sample taken decades ago,” said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.

Owens was on probation for robbery and working in a corrugated-box factory at the time of the killing, Mr. Mercer said.

Thompson, who had impaired mental abilities because of a serious car accident in the 1970s, had a minor criminal record and was married and working at a gas station, said his attorney, Suzanne Drouet.

The two became involved in the case after police offered a $1,000 reward for information. Thompson, lured by the promise of easy money, gave police a switchblade knife he said was the murder weapon, his attorney said.

Investigators pressed Thompson for details and eventually accused him, Miss Drouet said.

Thompson named Owens as the killer to save himself and later confessed at trial that he was at the crime scene during the killing.

Sam Brave, the retired prosecutor in the case, said that he is still convinced the two are guilty.

Miss Drouet said that she believes police and prosecutors pressured Thompson to confess, telling him they had evidence against him and promising that he would not be punished.

Miss Drouet noted that one of the convictions in Thompson’s criminal record was for making a false statement to a police officer.

Thompson’s father said that his son’s head injury may have played a role in the confession.

“Half the time, he doesn’t know what he’s saying,” the elder Mr. Thompson said.

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