Dear Friend of the Georgia Innocence Project:
TWENTY-SEVEN years after William Whitsett was arrested for the rape and murder of Evelyn Jones in Atlanta, Georgia, physical evidence collected at the crime scene is finally being tested at the state crime lab. It is incredibly unlikely that William, who has an 8th grade education, would have been able to successfully petition for post-conviction DNA testing without the help of the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP). In fact, even with the power of nearly a dozen legal interns, GIP’s investigation of William’s case has spanned more than a decade.
I first began working on William’s case in early 2014 after coming on board as GIP’s staff attorney thanks to a National Institute of Justice grant. Over the past year, I have spent over 275 hours poring over police documents, crime scene photographs, lab reports and trial transcripts trying to unravel the mystery of William’s case. The state’s case against William rested entirely on the fact that one eyewitness saw him walking in the neighborhood – where he happened to live – near the time the victim’s body was found, and a single piece of physical evidence, a cigarette carton found in the victim’s bedroom where her body was discovered.
The cigarette carton had three fingerprints on it that allegedly belonged to William. It never made sense to me that there were only three fingerprints on the carton and they all belonged to William. What about the victim’s husband who owned the nearly-empty carton? What about the store clerk who sold it? Or the stock boy who put it out on the shelf? Where were their fingerprints? And then it struck me: there were no photographs of the cigarette carton at the crime scene. Not a single photograph. My mind began racing and I realized that the single piece of physical evidence used against William was questionable. DNA from the sexual assault kit collected from the victim, however, could tell the story of her rape and murder by pointing directly to the identity of the perpetrator. After a lengthy battle with the district attorney’s office, we were finally able to secure DNA testing of the sexual assault kit. We are currently awaiting the test results from the state crime lab and we may need to do additional, costly testing at a private lab.
Unfortunately, William’s story is not unique. Every day we are in the trenches plodding through case files, looking for buried facts that may break open the entire case. While it is the DNA testing that ultimately leads to an exoneration, the investigation and evidence searches that GIP must conduct before asking for DNA testing are quite time consuming and, like William’s case, can take many years to complete. I can speak from personal experience that this work is both challenging and rewarding but we cannot continue to do it without your support. We need your help to continue seeking justice for all the men and women who are serving time in prison for crimes that they did not commit.
Christina Cribbs, GIP Staff Attorney