Associated Press

July 20, 2005

DNA test could exonerate Nebraska man

By KEVIN O'HANLON
Associated Press writer

LINCOLN, Neb. -- A relatively new form of DNA testing could result in the first exoneration under Nebraska's four-year-old DNA testing law.

Juneal Pratt is serving 32 to 90 years in prison for the rape, sexual assault and robbery of two sisters at an Omaha motel in 1975.

His lawyers say that recent DNA tests done on clothing worn by the women during the attacks excluded Pratt as the perpetrator.

The DNA analysis, done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is known as Y-STR testing. It relies on genetic material found in the Y chromosome found only in men and is most often used in paternity cases.

One of its first uses in a high-profile criminal case came in the successful prosecution of David Westerfield for the 2001 murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in San Diego.

But Pratt's lawyers say they need more evidence before they move for a new trial or to have Pratt released.

"We only get one shot at this," said Jerry Soucie, of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, who is consulting with the New York-based Innocence Project -- a group that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people using DNA evidence.

"We want to cross every `t' and dot every 'i' to show that the forensic evidence excludes him beyond any reasonable doubt," Soucie said.

Because the rape kit used on the women after the attacks has been lost, Soucie wants DNA samples from the women so he can begin the process of identifying the source of the unidentified DNA found on their clothing.

Douglas County District Judge Richard Spethman has scheduled an Aug. 4 hearing on the request.

Once the women's DNA is profiled, the remaining DNA can be sent through a national database to see if there are any matches.

"If we get a hit back ... then that makes the case bombproof," said Colin Starger, an Innocence Project lawyer.

The Combined DNA Indexing System is a database containing genetic samples from more than 2.3 million criminals, most taken after they've entered prison. The database also has some 100,000 DNA samples gathered from unsolved crime scenes.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains long sequences of chemical links which contain genetic information. DNA is housed in all cells and is as individual as fingerprints. Some death sentences have been overturned in recent years because of DNA evidence.

Pratt, now 50, was convicted after the sisters picked him out of a police lineup -- a practice that has come under increasing fire lately in cases involving victims trying to identify an attacker of a different race.

Mistaken witness identifications played a role in the convictions of nearly 80 percent of the 157 people nationwide who have been exonerated by DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.

Several witnesses said Pratt was at home at the time of the attacks.

Nebraska's DNA-testing law came in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that rejected a request to do DNA testing on evidence in the case of a Lincoln man convicted of murdering his wife.

The man, Mohammed El-Tabech, argued that the state should pay for the DNA tests -- which did not exist when he was convicted -- to see if the results could prove his innocence. He made no claim as to who else might have committed the murder.

The court said no procedure was in place to order the state to conduct DNA tests, so the Legislature changed the law.


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