DNA evidence under scrutiny

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Lewisburg man can have a new trial for a crime he allegedly committed almost 12 years ago and a hearing on related matters was scheduled for today.

Randall Ray Mills, 55, "should be granted a new trial ... so the jury can consider expert testimony from both sides," Circuit Court Judge Robert Crigler ruled after listening to hours of expert testimony and reviewing many pages of legal briefs.

Had the new evidence been presented at trial, the result of the proceedings might have been different, Crigler said, citing the legal standard for DNA evidence.

At Mills' trial in January 2000, the jury found him guilty of one count of rape of a child, and three counts of aggravated sexual battery, for an incident that was said to have occurred on March 15, 1999, when the victim was 12 years old.

His conviction was based on testimony of the victim, and on DNA evidence obtained from the victim's body and her underwear.

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent testifying at Mills' trial said the DNA results "did not exclude" him as the perpetrator, while an independent expert -- testifying here last summer -- said his results definitely did exclude Mills as the source of the male DNA.

The new trial would be on the rape conviction alone, not on the aggravated sexual battery, because DNA evidence did not play a part in that decision.

Mills received an effective sentence of 20 years, to be served at 100 percent.

The sentence was revised on a technicality, while remaining at an effective 20 years, and he was sentenced to 20 years for the rape, and nine years six months for the sexual battery, to run at the same time. Thus, Mills has finished serving his time for the crime for which he is not getting a new trial.

Mills' motion for a new trial was denied, and so was his appeal for post-conviction relief. Finally, while he was waiting for habeas corpus proceedings in federal court, an independent expert from California, Gary C. Harmor, re-examined the underwear presented in the case. Harmor testified here last year that his findings "excluded" Mills as "a source of the male DNA."

Harmor disagreed with the TBI agent, Sharon Jenkins, who performed the original study of the evidence, and testified at Mills' trial that the DNA evidence "could not exclude" him as the perpetrator.

"I think she incorrectly reported," said Harmor.

"So the male DNA you identified on the underwear could not be contributed by Randy Mills?" asked Craig M. Cooley, an attorney with the non-profit Innocence Project. "That's right," Harmor replied.

If it was not Mills' DNA, was the victim lying about him raping her? Thanks to Crigler's ruling, a jury may have another chance to decide this.

According to a source speaking on a condition of anonymity, the victim, now in her early twenties, could not be found immediately when Crigler wanted to interview her before making his ruling.

Today's hearing is due to address the questions of bond amount, appeals, the possibility of a new sentencing hearing, and whether the post-conviction DNA court should recuse itself from further decisions on the case.