Innocence Project requests new trial in 1993 break-in, rape

Two men who were convicted served most of sentences

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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The Innocence Project Northwest is seeking — on the basis of DNA testing unavailable at the time of the crime — a new trial for two Orchards-area men convicted in 1993 of attacking a woman in La Center.

Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard will decide at an April 21 hearing whether to vacate the convictions of Alan G. Northrop and Larry W. Davis.

If vacated, the case would be the Innocence Project’s second DNA exoneration in Washington.

“New evidence has proven what the defendants have maintained for 17 years,” said John Pantazis, staff attorney for the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic in Seattle. “They are completely innocent.”

Pantazis said the newly discovered DNA evidence shows the two defendants weren’t at the scene of the crime and points to different assailants.

In July 1993, a jury convicted Northrop, now 45, of first-degree rape, kidnapping and burglary. He was sentenced to 23 years and six months in prison.

In May 1993, a different jury had convicted Davis, now 53, of being an accomplice to first-degree rape, and of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree burglary. He received 20 years and six months in prison.

Davis has since been released, but Northrop is still serving his sentence at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. He is expected to be released in 2013.

The judge on Monday denied an early release request of Northrop while the case is pending.

The victim, a then 36-year-old housekeeper, was cleaning a home on Jan. 11, 1993, two miles southeast of La Center along the East Fork of the Lewis River. Two men apparently planned to burglarize the house, and encountered the woman. After a violent struggle, prosecutors alleged during trial, the two subdued her and tied her legs to a kitchen table.

They put tape over her eyes and cut her clothes off with a utility knife. Then a dark-haired man raped her, prosecutors said.

The men’s convictions were based solely on the victim’s eyewitness identification.

But the eyewitness testimony was problematic, Pantazis said, because the victim was blindfolded during the attack and able to get only a fleeting look at her assailants. She also was unable to pick Northrop out of a photo lay-down following the attack and unsure about her identification of Davis, Pantazis said.

It was only in a later live lineup that she identified the men, Pantazis said.

“The victim had seen photographs of both Mr. Davis and Mr. Northrop before viewing live lineups that contained no other familiar faces,” Pantazis said in a statement.

In 1993, samples were taken from the woman’s fingernails and pubic hair, but were not tested for DNA because of the lack of technology to test small amounts, Pantazis said.

In January 2006, a Clark County judge agreed to a request by the Innocence Project to test the samples using new DNA technology.

The results of the fingernail clippings showed DNA matches with two different, unknown people. The results of the pubic hair matched the DNA profile of one of those people, Pantazis said.

None of the DNA testing showed a match with either Northrop or Davis.

Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve argued that the two unknown profiles could be unrelated to the attack — they could be a man who had consensual sexual contact with the victim, and another person.

At a March 26 hearing before Woolard, Fairgrieve asked for more time to investigate this possibility.

Though she granted his request, the judge wasn’t sympathetic.

“My frustration is that the state has had time for investigation,” she said. “That’s what the pre-trial investigation was all about and that’s what the trial was all about.”

So far, Fairgrieve said, he has not found the source of the DNA matches.

Presence denied

When questioned by investigators in 1993, Northrop and Davis denied ever being inside the home where the attack occurred.

If the convictions are reversed, the case could be added to a list of more than 250 exonerations nationwide for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks reversals of wrongful convictions.

The first DNA exoneration in Washington came in September 2006, when a judge in Yakima County vacated the rape conviction of Ted Bradford.

Bradford was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a vicious attack on a woman at her home in Yakima. He went to trial again this year and was acquitted.

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.