The beginning of a jury trial for a Homer man accused of murder hinges on an argument over what evidence can be admitted into that trial.
The state and the defense for Lee John Henry, 58, argued Tuesday in an evidentiary hearing over DNA testing results and whether they should be allowed to be considered by a jury. Kenai Superior Court Judge Lance Joanis heard their arguments and ruled on the issue Wednesday afternoon. Discussion on a second, separate disagreement over the DNA testing also took place on Wednesday, and Joanis was set to announce a decision Thursday morning. In order to hash out the evidence arguments, calling in the jury for the trial has been delayed.
Henry is accused of killing Mark Matthews, who at 61-years-old was found dead in 2013 on the trail that connects to Poopdeck Street. Police found Matthews with his pockets turned out and a later autopsy determined that he died of blunt force trauma to the head.
The case went unsolved for three years until Homer police arrested Henry in 2016, and he was indicted on one count of first-degree murder, three counts of second-degree murder, one count of manslaughter and one count of first-degree murder.
DNA was found in one of Matthews’ pockets, and the results from testing done on it was at the crux of the argument between Public Defender Joy Hobart and Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders on Tuesday. There were two separate tests done on the DNA sampling, using two different test kits at two different times and using different standards and methods for analyzing. The first of two issues was whether to include the results from both tests, from just one of them or from neither.
The defense sought to keep the first DNA test and results from entering the trial as evidence. Joanis ruled in the state’s favor, however. The first DNA test will be allowed to be presented as evidence.
Leaders argued on Tuesday that the defense had not provided any legitimate legal reason to exclude the analysis from the first DNA tests.
“It’s not unfairly prejudiced in any sense,” Leaders said. “… If you want to couch it in a context of, ‘well there’s two different results,’ that’s why they (the defense) get to use the second one if they want to, to challenge the first result. … It’s not unfair prejudice. It is the standard litigation process. The state submits evidence and they challenge it if they so choose to do so.”
The second issue is whether to allow a third, very recent analysis of one of the earlier DNA test results as evidence in the trial. Leaders told the court on Tuesday that he only recently was made aware of a new software for analyzing DNA test results, and the results of this new analysis done on behalf of the state were sent to him during the evidentiary hearing on Tuesday. Hobart argued that the analysis should not be allowed in at this late stage because it would force the defense to take extra time to get up to speed and potentially delay the trial again. She also argued that the report, while a new way of analyzing test results, is not actually new evidence because it’s a different analysis of a DNA test that’s already been done.
The state and defense argued more fully about the issue of whether to exclude the new analysis on Wednesday. Hobart told the court that research the defense conducted within the last few days shows the method and software are new, and have not yet been used in a criminal case in the state of Alaska. She cited cases in other states where the issue of whether to allow evidence involving analyses that used the new software has been litigated for months before being resolved. The state maintained its position of wanting the new analysis entered as evidence.
Joanis said on Wednesday that he still needed more time to make a ruling on whether to include or exclude the DNA test analysis.
“It’s a big decision, and it’s a difficult decision,” he said. “And because of that, I’ve decided I’m going to take some more time. … I apologize about not giving a quick answer, but this isn’t the kind of issue you run across every day.”
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