MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis judge ruled on Monday that the daughter of a man executed 13 years ago for murder does not have standing to seek DNA testing of evidence in the case, although she stressed that the ruling was not on the merits of the claims.
April Alley is the daughter of Sedley Alley, executed in 2006 for the 1985 murder of Marine Lance Cpl. Suzanne Collins. Earlier this year, April Alley petitioned the court on behalf of her father’s estate to order DNA testing. The move came after investigators in a Missouri murder case contacted the Innocence Project about a possible connection between that suspect and Collins.
Since the early 1990s, 22 death row inmates around the U.S. have been absolved of crimes through DNA evidence. Innocence Project attorneys had hoped to use such evidence for the first time to exonerate a person who has already been executed. William Massey, an attorney for the Alley estate, said Monday they are disappointed with the ruling and plan to appeal.
Collins was 19 years old and stationed at the former Memphis Naval Air Station in Millington when she went jogging in a nearby park on the night of July 11, 1985. Her body was discovered early the next day. She had been beaten, raped and mutilated.
Sedley Alley confessed to the crime after 12 hours of questioning but later said he confession was coerced.
Shortly before Alley was led to the execution chamber and given a lethal injection on June 28, 2006, Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck helped argue for DNA evidence testing. The request was denied and Alley, who had spent two decades on Tennessee’s death row, was put to death at the age of 50.
That might have been the end of the story if Scheck had not received a call earlier this year from investigators in St. Louis. He said they wanted to discuss a possible connection between Collins and Thomas Bruce, who is jailed in Missouri and charged with sexually assaulting two women and killing a third at a Catholic Supply store there about a year ago. Scheck said investigators had told him Bruce attended the same avionics course as Collins in Millington, Tennessee.
Scheck reached out to April Alley, who agreed to petition for DNA evidence testing on behalf of her father’s estate.
Along with her brother, April Alley had witnessed her father’s execution. They had their hands up against the glass as he spoke his last words, telling them he loved them and to “stay strong.”
April Alley has been reluctant to talk about her effort to get DNA testing, but when she filed the petition, she spoke to reporters briefly.
“Watching my father die was so painful,” she said. “I’m hoping I can get the answer, one way or another, that I want.”
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan heard arguments in the case last month and dismissed the petition on Monday, ruling that April Alley did not have standing to bring the petition on behalf of her father’s estate.
“This Court does not wish to minimize the Alley family’s sincerely-held belief that Sedley Alley is innocent of the rape and murder of LCpl. Collins,” Skahan wrote. However, state law does not permit the estate of a deceased inmate to file a petition for DNA testing on his behalf, so the court has no jurisdiction to consider the petition, she wrote.
“The Alley estate’s arguments are best addressed to the General Assembly and the Tennessee Supreme Court,” Skahan wrote.
Scheck was not immediately available for comment on Monday morning.
In court last month, Scheck argued that it was a matter of justice to test the DNA evidence, arguing that the court had the power to order the testing. Evidence they want tested includes a pair of men’s underwear recovered at the scene.
“April Alley wants to know the truth. She has the courage to seek the truth,” Scheck said at the hearing. “DNA testing can … provide that truth.”
Memphis prosecutors opposed the testing. Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said in an email after the petition was filed that Sedley Alley’s case and conviction were repeatedly scrutinized by the courts over 21 years, and his guilt was established with “absolute certainty.”
At the hearing last month, Assistant District Attorney Steve Jones argued that the state’s DNA analysis law allows only the person convicted of the crime to request testing. He also argued that even if DNA from a third party were found on some of the evidence, it would not prove Sedley Alley was innocent. Alley was convicted based on “a combination of factors that corroborated his confession,” Jones said.
Loller reported from Nashville.
Adrian Sainz And Travis Loller, The Associated Press