A judge has denied a convicted murderer’s application for DNA testing, thwarting — at least for the moment — Newton P. Lambert’s quest to be exonerated of brutally slaying a Juneau woman in April 1982.
The 31-year-old evidence to be tested was preserved well, and although technically there was a break in chain custody, Ketchikan Superior Court Judge William B. Carey said that was not the basis for his ruling issued Monday.
Rather, the judge found that while the testing results may cause doubt as to Lambert’s guilt, it would still not establish his innocence, which is required by state law in order to do the testing.
“(This avenue of relief) requires a theory of defense that would establish innocence and raise a reasonable probability that the defendant did not commit the offense,” Carey wrote. “It is on these two points that Mr. Lambert’s application fails.”
Granting the DNA testing request would require a “leap of faith” he is not prepared to take, given the evidence that led a Juneau jury to convict Lambert at trial in October 1983, Carey wrote. The judge cited eyewitness identification, circumstantial evidence and Lambert’s own statements in and out of court that tied him to the crime.
Anne Benolken, 61, and her husband James Benolken, 63, were found dead in their apartment (the Lower F & L apartments on Admiral Way in Juneau), their bodies side by side, bloodied on a mattress in their living room. The couple had been raped and stabbed to death. Police at the time said Anne’s body had about 60 stab wounds.
Prosecutors charged both Lambert and a codefendant Emanual Telles, but both were acquitted for murdering James. His death remains an unsolved mystery as his killer was never found.
But the jury did convict Lambert of first-degree murder for killing Anne, and he is still serving his 99-year prison sentence for her death. Then 21, Lambert testified he was at the apartment the night of the murders, but blacked out after drinking and taking drugs (cocaine, marijuana and “black beauty” amphetamines). He said he woke up to find his hosts slaughtered, and ran out of the apartment.
Prosecutors said Lambert encouraged another person to lie about his whereabouts, his fingerprints were found on a bag containing a liquor bottle next to Anne’s body and he confessed to two other witnesses.
Lambert appealed his conviction, but that was denied in 1985.
Twenty-six years later, in June 2011, Lambert’s new attorney Sitka Assistant Public Defender Jude Pate asked to test two items taken from the crime scene for DNA: a blood stain taken from James’ shirt and a semen stain taken from James’ pants.
Pate had argued there were multiple other suspects in the crime aside from the two codefendants, and that the DNA testing would show that “two men, other than Mr. Lambert were engaged in the beating, rapes and murders of the Benolkens.”
In opposition, Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams argued the court should not ignore the weight of other evidence against Lambert. Even if the results showed DNA from other people at the scene, she said, it still wouldn’t conclusively establish Lambert’s innocence.
Carey agreed, writing, “There is still a considerable amount of evidence indicative of Mr. Lambert’s guilt.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Williams said the decision provides the victims in the case the closure they deserve.
“It shouldn’t matter that the Benolkens have passed,” Williams said. “Re-opening this case would result in a lack of justice to victims in the same way justice should be ensured for a defendant.”
A ‘first’ under new statute
The Alaska state statute specifically addressing post-conviction DNA testing is relatively new — it became law in 2010 to allow DNA testing in older cases when the technology in the field of DNA evidence was not as advanced. The statute, A.S. 12.73.020, is based off an older, separate statute that addresses post-conviction relief.
The DNA testing request in this case was the first petition to be completed in Alaska state or appellate court using the new statute. The law sets forth requirements that must be in place in order for the request to be granted. For instance, as is relevant in this case, the applicant must identify a theory of defense that would establish his or her innocence, and the proposed DNA testing of the specific evidence may produce new material that would either support the theory of defense, or raise a “reasonable probability” that the applicant did not commit the offense.
Judge Carey noted when ruling in cases such as this, he must attempt to strike a balance between two principles: the societal interest that prohibits defendants who have been rightly convicted from re-opening litigation, and the right for innocent people to not be punished.
“The technological advances in DNA testing have offered relief to hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who have been able to show, through the prodigious efforts of dedicated attorneys and criminal justice organizations such as the Innocence Project, that they could not have been the person who committed the crime for which they were convicted,” Carey wrote.
He added, “This is not that case.”
Discredited FBI agent
Lambert still has post-conviction relief motion pending that the court will address in the near future now that the DNA testing motion has been resolved. Defense attorney Pate applied for post-conviction relief for his client in February of 2010, saying a now-discredited FBI agent testified at Lambert’s trial as a hair comparison analyst. (This earlier motion was stayed as the DNA testing application took hold.)
Pate could not be reached for comment by press time Wednesday, but he previously wrote in motions that FBI Special Agent Michael Malone identified a hair found beneath Anne Benolken’s body as “probably” belonging to Lambert. Pate said that provided the jury with the most direct link between his client and Anne Benolken’s murder.
The Washington Post reported in 2010 that an internal investigation by prosecutors revealed that Malone gave false testimony about a hair analysis at a different trial, prompting the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., to review more than 100 cases since the mid-1970s because of “potentially falsified and inaccurate tests by FBI analysts.”
Pate says the fabricated testimony of Malone has been used to support reversal of convictions in at least three other serious felony cases.
The parties in Lambert case are scheduled to meet in Juneau Superior Court next month to discuss how to proceed.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.