- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Lawyers for a man convicted in the killing of a woman in Tunica County nearly two decades ago will argue his innocence on March 18 before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Joe Cotton was convicted of killing Fannie Lee Burks in her Tunica apartment in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison. The state Court of Appeals last year upheld the conviction. Cotton appealed to the Supreme Court.

Burks was killed in 1995, but the case remained unsolved until 2008, when the county Sheriff’s Office tested biological evidence found under Burks’s fingernails that had been stored since her death in an evidence room. Authorities said the resulting DNA profile matched Cotton. He was subsequently charged with her murder.

On appeal, Cotton’s lawyers have argued the evidence didn’t prove his guilt. They argue the presence of his DNA under Burks’s fingernails proved nothing more than a casual encounter between Cotton and Burks.

In court documents, Cotton said Burks had waited on him when he bought a sandwich at the restaurant where she worked the night of her slaying.

Cotton’s attorneys said the DNA was the only evidence that two had contact that night.

“It does not reveal when or where the contact occurred nor the character of the contact. Casual contact can transfer DNA from one person to another,” wrote public defender George Holmes, who represents Cotton.

The Appeals Court, in a 7-3 ruling, said while the evidence against Cotton was circumstantial it was sufficient to uphold the jury’s verdict. The majority said a jury could reasonably conclude the DNA found under Burks‘ nails came from her attacker.

The case is among dozens the Supreme Court will consider during its March-April term. Other cases include:

- Frank Gideon Whitaker IV’s appeal of his aggravated DUI conviction in Warren County involving a 2012 accident that left a woman in a coma for weeks. Whitaker was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013. Authorities say he was driving a truck that collided head-on with a vehicle driven by the woman.

- Ryan Abeyta’s appeal of his murder conviction in Harrison County for the death of his mother in 2011. Abeyta was sentenced to life in prison in 2013. Prosecutors say Pamela Marlene Santiago was beaten and choked in her home office after confronting Abeyta about a missing debit card. Her body was found in a woodsy area of Gulfport in October 2011.

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