Man condemned by DNA test

Twelve years ago, William Allen Jennings was convicted of rape, forcible sodomy, and breaking and entering in Prince William County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Jennings, 54, formerly of 4213 Hemingway Drive, Dale City, maintained his innocence and successfully lobbied the Innocence Project in New York City to take his case.

On Thursday, his DNA report hearing was the first such proceeding in Prince William County Circuit Court.

The results were not good for Jennings.

“The chances of it being someone else is one in six billion,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sandra Sylvester said, adding, “That pretty much closes that avenue for Mr. Jennings.”

Sylvester estimated the associated lab costs at $3,000 to $5,000. DNA testing was performed by the Commonwealth’s Division of Forensic Science on seminal fluid stains the perpetrator left on the victim’s sheets.

“I don’t think the Commonwealth should have to pay that,” Sylvester said.

“It’s an inherent unfairness to Mr. Jennings when those who are exonerated aren’t assessed the cost,” argued Jennings’ attorney, Lisa Kemler. “It doesn’t seem fair either way.”

Kemler also said that the Commonwealth’s legislation does not say who is to pay for the testing, but mandates that it must take place in a state lab. She suggested that mandate implied the Commonwealth would assume the cost.

Sylvester pointed out that had Jennings entered his request after Nov. 15, he could have been charged with perjury for falsely maintaining his innocence. The new legislation, applicable to those seeking post-conviction DNA testing, was signed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III in May 2001.

Judge Richard B. Potter ruled that Jennings could not be charged for lab costs.

“I’m not agreeing the Commonwealth should have to pay … but under current statutes of law I have no choice,” Potter said.

Vanessa Potkins, staff attorney at the Innocence Project, says that of the roughly 30 states that have post-conviction DNA testing statutes, only three or four specify either who pays for the testing or where the testing is to be performed. She disagrees with having the defendant pay for the testing costs, pointing out that today, when DNA tests are performed, they are considered part of the cost of law enforcement investigation.

“I don’t think that’s a great idea,” Potkins said, “Society will benefit from tests that exonerate people and tests that confirm guilt. In a time when our criminal justice system is being torn apart… we need confidence to be restored. [DNA testing] is unique in that it cuts to the truth.”

“Apparently, the Innocence Project thinks the Commonwealth should have to pay … when this man never ceased this charade,” Sylvester said before Thursday’s hearing.

Afterwards, Kemler said she had no problem with Virginia’s new perjury legislation, but doesn’t believe it will prove much of a deterrent, particularly to convicts who are serving life sentences.

The hearing proceeded in Jennings’ absence.

“Jennings is a disappointment,” Kemler said afterwards. “We don’t want to waste resources.”

Kemler worked on Jennings’ case with the Innocence Project on a pro bono basis. The Innocence Project was created in 1992 at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. It operates on a not-for-profit basis, using law students for initial case work. The project only takes cases where DNA testing after a conviction could prove innocence conclusively.

“We have about 150 active clients and about 4,000 requests have come into our office that are in some stage of evaluation,” Potkins said.

Potkins said about 60 percent of Innocence Project clients that are tested are proven guilty by the testing. Forty percent of those tested are exonerated. The project has exonerated 115 people nationwide in the last 10 years.

“Three-quarters of the cases [that are submitted] never get treated because there’s just nothing left to test,” Potkins said.

Jennings himself wrote Potter to ask for his help in finding the evidence to test in his case.

“Sir, is there any way you can help me in this matter? Sir, I pray you can so I can prove my innocence of the crime that I am locked up for,” Jennings wrote in a letter received Jan. 7, 1999.

The letter is hand-written in a childishly careful cursive. Jennings received only a sixth-grade education. At the time of his arrest, he had been working for an area plumbing company for two months. He supported his wife and four children.

The victim, then 41-year-old Clara Moska, told police she recognized the perpetrator’s voice as that of “Bill, the maintenance man,” according to court documents. Moska never saw her assailant, since he covered her face with her pillow, and put her own pillowcase over his head.

In the early hours of August 15, 1989, Jennings tied Moska’s arms behind her and raped her three times before leaving her apartment. On his way out, Jennings warned Moska she should lock her balcony door, which she had left open the night before. Jennings, however, used a master key to enter Moska’s apartment.

Jennings was also convicted of an earlier intrusion at the same apartment complex, Riverside Terrace Apartments, on the 1500 block of Colonial Drive in Woodbridge. On that occasion, he used a master key to enter then 34-year-old Betty Bryam’s apartment. Jennings had been employed by the apartment complex as a maintenance man.

Bryam woke about 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, 1989, when a man jumped on top of her and placed a knife against her stomach. When she told the man she was pregnant, he left after a brief struggle. On his way out, he warned her not to leave the balcony door unlocked, or to call police.

Jennings was convicted in April 1990 of the attack on Bryam. At his July 1990 trial for the rape of Moska, “it was the prosecution’s theory of the case that the same man perpetrated both Ms. Bryam’s burglary and Ms. Moska’s rape,” according to court documents filed by the Innocence Project.

Jennings faced a maximum sentence of two life imprisonments plus 60 years, but former Circuit Court Judge Percy Thornton decided to “temper such justice as [the jury] found with mercy,” Thornton said. The combined sentence was 50 years, due to the judge’s concern for the “fallout upon [Jennings’] family and friends.”

“It’s pretty clear we got our handyman rapist,” Sylvester said last week, “I’m very happy we got our man.”

“While we’re disappointed, it’s a victory for the process that the system worked like it should,” Potkins said.

Jennings remains at Buckingham Correctional Center near Dillwyn. He is scheduled for release Jan. 8, 2015.

Staff writer Maria Hegstad can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 121.

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