Thursday, September 19, 2002

NKU students help free wrongly convicted man

ByBy Karen Gutierrez,
The Cincinnati Enquirer
and The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — A man imprisoned 13 years on a rape conviction was ordered freed Wednesday on the basis of DNA evidence.

        Herman May Jr.'s release was made possible in part by two law students at Northern Kentucky University, Beth Albright and Debbie Davis. They were assigned to research the case by the Kentucky Innocence Project, which assists prisoners who might be exonerated through genetic testing.

[photo] Law students Debbie Davis (left) and Beth Albright helped find evidence that led to the release of Herman May Jr.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        Wednesday evening, the two women were heading to Eddyville to meet Mr. May and his parents as he walked out of the Kentucky State Penitentiary. From phone reports, the women gathered that Mr. May was in a state of shock.

        “We're just beside ourselves with excitement,” said Ms. Davis, who is 46 and had a previous career as a nurse. “You could work your whole life and never do something this exciting or this good for somebody.”

        A judge said the new evidence in Mr. May's case was so decisive that “it probably would change the result” if a new trial were conducted.

        DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid — is a large molecule that contains a person's genetic code. DNA evidence can be gleaned from a person's hair, skin or body fluid, such as saliva on a cigarette butt.

        It was unclear whether Mr. May would be tried again. Franklin County Commonwealth's Attorney Larry Cleveland could not be reached for comment.

        Mr. May always insisted he was wrongly convicted of the attack on a woman in Frankfort in 1988, when he was 17. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He would have been eligible for parole three years ago, but he refused to participate in sex-offender counseling because it would have required him to admit something he didn't do, Ms. Davis said.

        As part of their research, the two women went to the Franklin County courthouse in November to search for the rape kits and other evidence. It was a miracle they found anything, they said, because part of the courthouse had burned since Mr. May's trial. Salvaged material was transferred to a storage area that subsequently flooded, said Ms. Albright, 36.

        Tapes of the trial were essential. A clerk finally found them, singed but useable, in the back of a file cabinet.

        Lawyers for the state Department of Public Advocacy, which sponsors the Kentucky Innocence Project, then went to Franklin County Circuit Court to ask for retesting of the DNA evidence.

        Because DNA technology has improved since Mr. May's trial, the retesting showed that his DNA did not match that of the semen taken from the victim.

        A second DNA test found that pubic hairs from the crime scene probably were not from Mr. May, said Marguerite Thomas of the Department of Public Advocacy.

        The victim has since acknowledged having had consensual sex with someone else before the rape.

        She was definitely sexually assaulted on the night in question, the NKU students said. Police found her naked and beaten. Mr. May was identified as a suspect because, around the same time and in the same vicinity, he had stolen a guitar and amplifier from the truck of an acquaintance who owed him money, Ms. Albright said.

        The victim eventually identified Mr. May from photographs, but his parents testified that he had been home with them at the time of the rape, Ms. Davis said.

        The couple spent their life savings on their son's defense and ultimately got divorced, she said.

        In vacating Mr. May's conviction and granting a new trial, Franklin County Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden concluded that “the results of the tests are of such decision value or force ... that it would probably change the result if a new trial should be granted.”

        Said Ms. Davis on Wednesday: “My biggest fear is, where's the real (perpetrator)? He could be out there doing something else.”


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