Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus Elections Cooking Covid Classroom Families Core Values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive
ADVERTISEMENT

Court assigns aid to convict in '79 murder

He’s 2nd to be given lawyer over faulty FBI hair analysis by Spencer Willems | June 26, 2015 at 4:56 a.m.

Correction: A hair was tested for DNA during the initial investigation into the murder for which Eugene Pitts was convicted of capital murder in 1979, but the results were inconclusive. This story omitted information about that DNA test. Pitts has unsuccessfully sought further DNA analysis of hair found at the crime scene. The hair sample was discovered missing in 2007; this story had the wrong year.

The Arkansas Supreme Court gave an inmate serving a life sentence for a 1979 murder an attorney after the inmate demonstrated that his conviction was tainted by testimony from a discredited FBI expert.

ADVERTISEMENT

More headlines

Eugene Pitts, 67, has been in prison since since his 1979 conviction for kidnapping and slaying a romantic rival, Dr. Bernard Jones.

He is the second Arkansas inmate to get court-appointed help in petitioning for post-conviction relief after news that the forensic testimony used against him and potentially thousands of others went beyond the limits of science.

Pitts' case is one of at least three Arkansas cases regarding the hair analysis that are being reviewed by officials from the FBI and the Department of Justice, as well as the Innocence Project.

Since the review began in 2012, federal officials determined that 26 of their 28 non-DNA microscopic hair-follicle analysts gave "erroneous" testimony in 95 percent of the cases they reviewed.

The court appointed John Wesley Hall to guide Pitts through his petition, weeks after they appointed another Little Rock defense attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, to help Lonnie Strawhacker. That prisoner's life sentence for rape and battery charges were partially the result of testimony from the same discredited expert who testified against Pitts.

On Thursday, Hall said he wasn't very familiar with Pitts' case but that over the years, he's watched prosecutors scale back the credibility of microscopic hair analysis.

Now that DNA testing is available, microscopic hair analysis "doesn't matter as much as it did back then," he said. He says the few times he saw such testimony, the experts didn't make many definitive claims about the hair samples.

"They've toned it down over the years," he added.

In January 1979, a North Little Rock lawyer named Benita Jones arrived home to find her front door was unlocked and her husband's keys were still in the door.

When she went inside, a masked man put a gun to her head and, after a struggle, tied her up.

Her husband, Dr. Bernard Jones, was already bound, gagged and blindfolded.

The brother of Joycelyn Elders, a U.S. surgeon general in the Clinton administration, Jones was credited with being the state's first black veterinarian.

Benita Jones later testified that she recognized Pitts' voice because she'd gone to law school with him. She had a restraining order against the man, who had sent her roses on Valentine's Day the year before and was suspected of having mailed her husband a bullet with the veterinarian's name etched on it.

Pitts left with Jones' husband and shot him four times, leaving his body in a stolen car not far from the couple's home.

In addition to his voice identification, prosecutors relied on dirt samples found in the stolen car that matched samples on Pitts' shoes, as well as the testimony of FBI analyst Michael Malone, who testified that Pitts' hair virtually matched a hair found at the crime scene.

Pitts has filed several appeals in both state and federal courts over the last several decades, trying and failing to get a DNA analysis of the hair found at the crime scene that experts linked to him. Sometime in 2008, the hair sample disappeared.

In November, the Justice Department notified Pitts that Malone was one of several analysts who had provided unreliable expert testimony.

While advocates for convicts like the Innocence Project say that the science proffered by Malone was in and of itself faulty, the FBI still considers microscopic hair analysis a valid technique if done properly. It now uses the analysis to supplement DNA testing, which became the standard for forensic testing in the late 1990s.

Hall said that procedurally, Pitts' efforts for relief could prove difficult because there isn't a ready rule that allows for appeals of this nature.

But if given a chance, Pitts will be able to show that the hair analysis testimony was "nonsense," he said.

Pitts remains at the Tucker state prison in Jefferson County.

Metro on 06/26/2015

Print Headline: Court assigns aid to convict in '79 murder

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsor Content