What if DNA samples showed that two people — other than a man later convicted for murder — were present inside the apartment where a Juneau couple was found raped and stabbed to death in April 1982?
That was the question posed by Judge William Carey on Friday as he heard oral arguments from attorneys on whether he should order DNA testing which could potentially lead to an acquittal of Newton Patric Lambert, convicted by a jury in 1983 for murdering Anne Benolken.
There were multiple suspects in the killings of Anne and James Benolken, who were found together on a bloodied mattress on their living room floor, and Lambert’s attorney argues the DNA of blood and semen found on James Benolken’s clothes will show the presence of those alternative suspects, and not his client.
“That right there is enough for a theory of defense that would raise a substantial probability that Mr. Lambert did not commit the crime,” Sitka Public Defender Michael Jude Pate told the judge.
But Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams says the proposed DNA evidence would have limited value, especially since Lambert was acquitted of murdering James Benolken. Lambert’s co-defendant, Emanuel Telles, was also acquitted of killing James Benolken, which means his killer was never found.
“You could find five DNA samples on Mr. Benolken’s pants, and it doesn’t prove that Mr. Lambert didn’t kill Ms. Benolken,” Williams said.
Williams pointed out that Lambert admitted during the trial that he was at the apartment in a “blackout state” the night of the murders, and that his fingerprint was found on a bottle “just inches from Anne Benolken’s mutilated body.”
Williams also called into question the integrity of the DNA samples themselves, which was the subject of several evidentiary hearings leading up to Friday’s final arguments.
Williams argued the laboratory that was in possession of the samples was poorly maintained and that there wasn’t a properly documented chain of custody, while Pate argued that wasn’t the case, and that the state was subjecting today’s standards onto evidence from the early 1980s.
State statutes require that in order to obtain DNA testing, the applicant must show that the physical evidence in question has been subjected to a chain of custody and retained under conditions that ensure the evidence has not been substituted, contaminated or altered in any manner.
Another point of contention during the hearing was regarding the level of proof Lambert has to show in order for the judge to grant the DNA testing request: Does Lambert have to show the DNA testing will produce new evidence that would raise the “reasonable probability” that he didn’t commit the offense, or does he have to meet a higher standard by showing the DNA testing will conclusively prove his actual innocence?
Pate argued the state Legislature specifically left a phrase out of the statute at the time it was written that would have required an applicant for DNA testing to conclusively show his or her innocence. Williams argued the law in Alaska as well as other states in the Lower 48 support the notion that DNA testing should be ordered only when the new evidence would result in an acquittal. Williams emphasized that post-conviction relief through DNA testing should not be a substitute for an appeal.
Lambert has another claim pending in the case, which seeks to address possible false testimony from an FBI agent who has since been publicly discredited.
That issue won’t be addressed until the DNA testing issue is resolved, but Pate told the judge that potentially false testimony, when coupled with the DNA testing, “goes above and beyond the requirement that there’s a reasonable probability that Mr. Lambert did not commit the offense.”
Williams, on the other hand, told the judge that no matter what the DNA shows, it doesn’t foreclose Lambert’s guilt.
“Mr. Lambert asks you to conduct — order DNA testing of this, this evidence that has very limited value, that has been maintained very poorly in a case where the evidence of his guilt is overwhelming,” Williams said.
The judge thanked the attorneys for their arguments and said he would take them under advisement.
Carey said he would review transcripts and documents that have been submitted before making a ruling, noting, “I think this is an important case, and I’m certainly going to give it my full consideration.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.