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    DNA test allowed as execution looms

    After 25 years of arguing he didn't kill a woman, Amos Lee King can try again to find proof.

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 16, 2003


    Less than two weeks from execution, Amos Lee King has been granted one more chance to try to prove he did not rape and kill an elderly Tarpon Springs widow nearly 26 years ago.

    A Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judge allowed King's lawyers to conduct a third round of DNA testing, this time on the nightgown worn by 68-year-old Natalie "Tillie" Brady when she was raped and left to die, and on a pair of wooden knitting needles used in the assault.

    "We are finally going to find out if he is guilty or not," said King's newest attorney, David Menschel of the New-York based Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to exonerate 116 inmates.

    Judge Susan Schaeffer had not yet written her order Saturday afternoon, but she called attorneys for both the state and the defense and told them what she had decided.

    King, 48, did not ask Schaeffer to delay his execution, set for Feb. 26. His attorneys hope a lab can find semen on the nightgown in time to persuade a court or the governor to grant a stay so it can be tested for DNA.

    Schaeffer insists the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conduct the tests, and do them as quickly as possible, said King's state-appointed lawyer, Peter Cannon. Schaeffer indicated to him that a stay would be in order if the results were not back in time, Cannon said. But King's attorneys argued Friday the tests should be done even if the results come back after King is dead.

    The nightgown and the needles have not been tested since 1977, when the FBI failed to locate any biological material from the attacker. The most critical evidence in the case has since been lost -- the rape kit disappeared or was thrown away. So King's attorneys have scoured every scrap of old evidence they can find.

    The Innocence Project won King a reprieve 15 minutes before his last scheduled execution, Dec. 2, when Gov. Jeb Bush granted testing of hair samples, fingernail scrapings and ambulance sheets. Those results were inconclusive.

    The nightgown and needles were not tested then because his lawyers had not found them yet. Evidence from old cases is hard to track, Menschel said. There is a high probability that the nightgown would contain enough semen to produce a result, he said. All it takes is about 50 sperm, or a spot smaller than the head of a pin.

    Tools are more sophisticated now and the motivation is higher than during the original investigation, Menschel said, because back then the FBI already had plenty of evidence and didn't need to examine the gown closely for more.

    Schaeffer made her decision one day after she rejected three other motions on King's behalf. She told Cannon she granted the testing despite her earlier rulings to make sure an innocent man wasn't executed. "She doesn't want any doubts," Cannon said.

    In Friday's hearing, Schaeffer expressed her frustration at the ongoing requests for tests, her irritation that King's lawyers don't ask until an execution date is near, and her belief that more tests would only prove King's guilt.

    Menschel calmly told the judge he shared her frustration. But if the tests prove King is guilty, he said, "Wouldn't that be wonderful for the state of Florida?"

    "The state of Florida doesn't need it," Schaeffer shouted.

    Still, she acknowledged that the nightgown was more likely to contain evidence than anything tested so far, and that the evidence would be important.

    The state has until 8 a.m. Monday to ask Schaeffer to stay the order. If that happens, Schaeffer will hold a hearing Monday, she said. King's attorneys also have until 8 a.m. Monday to ask for tests on any other evidence.

    "This has been piecemeal enough," Schaeffer said Saturday.

    Round after round of motions and appeals have made King the longest-serving death row inmate from Pinellas County. He has argued his innocence through 25 years, warrants by three governors and six reprieves.

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