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    New tests discredit evidence in slaying

    By DAVID KARP

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 26, 2001


    TAMPA -- Fifteen years ago, the body of a prostitute was found inside an abandoned drug house near downtown.

    Within six months, a drug user named Rudolph Holton was convicted of the killing and swiftly sentenced to death. Case closed.

    But over the past year, an attorney from New York City working on Holton's behalf has chipped away at most of the evidence, casting doubt on the murder conviction.

    Witnesses who put Holton at the murder scene have recanted. A jailhouse informant who testified that Holton had confessed now says he lied. DNA tests show that a hair found in the victim's mouth did not belong to Holton, even though prosecutors suggested to the jury that it had.

    On Monday, more evidence against Holton fell away. New DNA tests show that additional hair found near the murder scene does not belong to Holton, either.

    Circuit Judge Daniel Perry ordered the tests after a hearing in April to decide whether Holton should get a new trial. The judge actually stepped down from the bench, put on latex gloves and identified the hairs.

    Prosecutors asked Monday for a week's delay before continuing with the hearing. Assistant State Attorney Wayne Chalu said he wanted the office's homicide committee to review the case before moving ahead.

    Chalu said later that the case review was routine; he simply hadn't had time, since April, to schedule a meeting. But others wondered if prosecutors were reconsidering the strength of the case.

    "It's a shaky case," said defense attorney Joe Episcopo, a former prosecutor who won the conviction against Holton in 1986. "It's a problem for them."

    Holton's attorneythinks Tampa police arrested the wrong man.

    "I absolutely believe he is an innocent man who has been on death row for 15 years for a crime he didn't do," said Martin McClain, who is handling the case for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates.

    On June 23, 1986, police had responded to billowing smoke coming from an abandoned house on Scott Street. Inside, they found 17-year-old Katrina Graddy. She had been raped, strangled and set on fire.

    Nearby, a man was sleeping in his pickup truck. He later told police that he had picked up a hitchhiker in Pinellas County who looked like Holton and then dropped him by the abandoned drug house in Tampa.

    The hitchhiker had left a black leather shaving kit in the pickup truck, the witness said.

    Even though prosecutors mentioned the kit at Holton's original trial, they never claimed that it directly tied Holton to the murder. The hitchhiker had been dropped at the house hours before the murder. And lots of drifters came and went from the house all day.

    "I am not convinced that the shaving kit is all that tied into the murder," McClain said.

    Even so, the DNA tests add more doubt to what started as a case of circumstantial evidence. The only remaining physical evidence against Holton is his fingerprint on a cigarette pack found in the drug house.

    But photos of the house show that it was littered with trash. Scores of users had camped there to shoot drugs.

    Defense attorneys also point to a police report the murder victim filed shortly before her death. In it, she said another man had raped her; he later confessed to her murder, according to a witness who recently came forward.

    Prosecutors agreed last year to grant Holton, 48, a new sentencing hearing because former Judge Harry Lee Coe had made fundamental procedural mistakes in imposing the death sentence.

    Now, both sides are arguing whether the evidence has changed enough to warrant a new trial. Holton's attorney must show that new evidence would probably have changed the outcome of the jury's verdict in 1986.

    A hearing is set for Friday.

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