Trenton Star Ledger

DNA tests topple murder conviction
Prosecutor to retry Burlington County man held in 1987 rape and killing

Saturday, July 30, 2005
BY RICK HEPP
Star-Ledger Staff

Larry Peterson always denied he raped and killed a mother of two whose body was found dumped alongside a Burlington County soybean field in 1987. Now, after spending 17 years in prison for the crime, he'll get another chance to convince a jury he is innocent.

A state Superior Court judge yesterday threw out Peterson's conviction and ordered a new trial after a battery of DNA tests performed earlier this year showed that skin, hair and bodily fluids found at the scene of the grisly crime were not his.

Peterson, now 54, will face a new trial for the Aug. 24, 1987, sexual assault and murder of Jacqueline Harrison near her Pemberton Township home. In the meantime, he remains behind bars. Judge Thomas S. Smith Jr. set bail at $200,000.

Peterson's attorney called the overturned conviction "a great step forward" in clearing his name.

"In light of the DNA evidence, it's just unconscionable that the state would seek a retrial, but they committed to do it and we're prepared," said Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that handles cases where postconviction DNA testing of evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence.

Despite the DNA results, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi believes there is still enough evidence to convict Peterson at a new trial. He declined to say yesterday what that evidence entails, but it would likely include calling four witnesses who testified against Peterson during his initial jury trial.

"This office believes that there is sufficient evidence to move forward with a retrial of Mr. Peterson," the prosecutor said in a statement. "It would serve no purpose to debate the state's evidence in the media since in the final analysis the jury will make that determination."

Peterson's attorneys filed a petition in April asking the court to exonerate him after DNA tests by a private laboratory determined six hairs found on a stick at the crime scene and on Harrison's body belonged to the victim -- not to Peterson as prosecutors had contended during the trial.

Other tests showed blood and skin found under Harrison's fingernails and bodily fluids found on her body -- which prosecutors had linked to Peterson through microscopic examination -- do not match his genetic profile. Instead, most of the sperm found on the victim as well as the evidence collected from under her fingernails belonged to an "unknown male," while a small amount of semen belonged to her consensual sex partner at the time.

Harrison was raped and murdered following a cocaine-fueled night during which she had consensual sex with two men, according to court papers. She was last seen walking from the home of the second man about 3:30 a.m. in search of more cocaine.

Her body was found hours later on a dirt road that services to a soybean field, the documents show. An autopsy later determined she was raped, tortured with a tree branch and then strangled by hand.

Peterson, who lived in Pemberton, became a suspect two days later when two people, including Harrison's best friend, told police they had seen fresh fingernail scratch marks on Peterson's arm. Under questioning, Peterson denied committing the crime and said he had been with a woman at a local motel the entire evening.

Police later turned up three witnesses who said Peterson had described the crime to them in lurid detail as they drove to work on the morning of the murder -- hours before police had released any information on the crime. Peterson was arrested Sept. 22, 1987.

The three later testified against Peterson, as did a fourth witness, who was in jail with Peterson prior to the trial. He claimed that while they were in a holding cell, Peterson confessed to him that he raped and murdered Harrison.

Potkin said a retrial would likely hinge on the testimony of those witnesses. But unlike in the first trial, she said, the prosecution won't have the forensic evidence to back up their statements.

"They were believable at trial because of the hair evidence," Potkin said. "Now that we've done DNA testing, we have three uncredible people who told vastly different stories."

Rick Hepp covers criminal justice. He may be reached at rhepp@starledger.com or (609) 989-0398.

Recent Cases
Truth in Justice