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DNA test is inmate's last chance

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When a Gates County jury concluded in 1995 that Jerry Wayne Conner should be executed for a double murder, one of the jurors who voted for death was Gates County Index news editor Helene Knight.

Knight was the Index's reporter assigned to cover Conner's murder trial in 1991. Her presence four year's later as a juror in a re-sentencing hearing has prompted Conner's lawyers to claim juror misconduct.

Knight did not divulge the fact she had received confidential, off the record information "from key witnesses and from law enforcement officials," or that she "had expressed views in an editorial shortly before the trial that compared the fight against crime to a war, and bemoaned the leniency afforded perpetrators of murder," Conner's lawyers wrote in court filings.

Conner, 40, is scheduled to be executed by injection Friday at 2 a.m. in Raleigh's Central Prison for the 1990 murders of Minh Rogers and her daughter, Linda, 16, who was also raped.

Conner says he is innocent of the charges, and that a confession he made was coerced by police. Conner's lawyers also presented an expert's claim that Conner is borderline mentally retarded.

Conner's lawyers have asked the state to retest a semen sample taken from Linda Rogers' body. A 1991 DNA test was inconclusive, but a "short tandem repeat" (STR) test now available would likely conclude if the semen was Conner's.

A Superior Court judge denied Conner's request for another DNA test. At press time, Conner was awaiting a decision from the N.C. Supreme Court regarding both the DNA request and the defense claim of juror bias. A test could also be ordered by Gov. Mike Easley as part of his clemency consideration.

Conner's attorney, Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said the attorney general's opposition to a new DNA test is "a pretty tough position to defend."

"I think it's irrational when you're about to execute someone to oppose the one test that can say one way or the other whether you were right," Rose said. "When you have that kind of potential evidence, why not pursue it?"

In an interview May 9, special deputy attorney general Barry McNeill said "in light of the other evidence that was presented against Conner at his trial," including Conner's confession and evidence corroborating that confession, another DNA test is not likely to result in "a different reasonable probability" from the trial jury's conclusion of Conner's guilt.

Rose disagrees: "If this test turned out favorable, it would be conclusive evidence of his innocence of rape and very strong evidence that he's innocent of everything."

At Conner's re-sentencing, Index editor Knight stated during voir dire that she had never discussed Conner's case outside the courtroom with persons who had direct or firsthand knowledge of the case. However, following the trial, Knight admitted she spoke with at least three law enforcement agents with firsthand knowledge of the crime.

"Ms. Knight's presence as a member of the 1995 re-sentencing jury actually prejudiced Mr. Conner, effectively denying him his constitutional rights to trial by a fair and impartial jury," Conner's lawyers wrote.

A conclusion written by Rose and Conner's other defense attorney, Mark Kleinschmidt, states: "There is little reason to have confidence that Mr. Conner's path through the capital litigation process has been fair. ... With each measure of unfairness, the strength of Mr. Conner's conviction diminishes precipitously and with it so does the assurance that North Carolina is about to execute the one man responsible for these crimes."

Said Kleinschmidt: "I feel like I'm living in a Bizzaro world where everything is backwards."

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