MEMPHIS, TN – The daughter of a man executed 13 years ago for murder does not have legal standing to seek DNA testing of evidence in the case, a Memphis judge ruled Monday, but the judge also said the ruling wasn’t based on the merits of the claims.
April Alley is the daughter of Sedley Alley, executed in 2006 for the murder two decades earlier 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 a suspect in that case and Collins.
“I’m heartbroken,” Alley said in a Monday statement about the ruling. “Frankly, I’m numb.”
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.
A statement from the Innocence Project on Monday said they were very disappointed in the decision and have already filed a notice of appeal.
Collins was 19 and stationed at the former Memphis Naval Air Station in Millington, Tennessee, 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 the confession was coerced.
Shortly before Alley was executed, Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck helped argue for DNA evidence testing. The request was denied. Alley, 50, who had spent two decades on Tennessee’s death row, was put to death by injection on June 28, 2006.
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.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has made no public statements about a possible connection between Collins and Bruce. A phone message left Monday with Tim Swope, a spokesman for Bell, was not immediately returned.
Brice Donnelly, Bruce's attorney, declined comment.
April Alley has been reluctant to talk about her effort to get DNA testing. Along with her brother, she 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."
On Monday, she issued a statement thanking her supporters and vowing to “see this through to the end, no matter what it takes.”
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan heard arguments in the case last month and dismissed the petition Monday, ruling that April Alley lacked 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.
The Innocence Project said the ruling means “It will now take months, if not years, to go through the courts to finally get to the truth in this matter.”
“If Tennessee executed an innocent person, we should know it, and the person who did it should be identified,” the group’s statement added.
Memphis prosecutors opposed the testing. Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said in an email Monday, “The law is very clear that the defendant’s estate has no standing in this matter. After 34 years of appeals by the defense, the Collins family continues to be the only victim in this case.”
Loller reported from Nashville. Jim Salter contributed to this report from St. Louis.