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Innocence Project casts doubt on Stevens’ 1986 murder conviction

by Audrey Thomasson

LANCASTER—A Lancaster man serving a life sentence for the murder of a young mother in 1985 claims authorities concealed evidence in the 30-year-old case.

The Innocence Project of the University of Virginia School of Law last month filed an amendment with the Clerk of Lancaster County Circuit Court to an earlier motion for habeas corpus in the case of Emerson Stevens, convicted in 1986 of the murder of Mary Keyser Harding.

Habeas corpus is a recourse in law whereby a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment before a court.

It took two trials in 1986 to convict Stevens of abducting the mother of two from her home on August 22, 1985, while her children were asleep in the house. Five days later, her body was found in shallow water near Belle Isle Marsh, off the Rappahannock River. Stevens was sentenced to 164 years and a day in prison. He has maintained his innocence over three decades.

The newly acquired exculpatory evidence comes from a box of materials related to the investigation which was never turned over to Stevens’ defense counsel, according to the amendment. The material was discovered last year at the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department.

According to the amendment, the contents of the box include an FBI report identifying a number of additional viable suspects; several witness statements in interviews that conflict with their court testimony; disclosure of witnesses whose statements could have impeached the testimony of prosecution witnesses; and, evidence of coercion of witnesses by the state’s chief investigator.

Litigation attorneys Jennifer Givens and Deirdre Enright, professors at the UVA Innocence Project, are asking the court to vacate the conviction.

“Mr. Stevens was convicted of a crime he did not commit…The Commonwealth’s failure to disclose the exculpatory evidence on which those false testimony claims are based violates its obligations in Brady versus Maryland,” they wrote, citing legal precedent.

The UVA branch of Innocence Project has been investigating Stevens’s conviction since 2010. In 2012, they had DNA testing done on the only direct evidence used in his conviction, a single stand of brown hair found on a shirt in his truck. A year later, forensic scientists said the testing was inconclusive.

Lancaster Commonwealth’s Attorney Jan Smith said the original habeas corpus motion filed last fall claims the science used on the hair in 1986 is no longer valid. Additionally, it indicates the medical examiner no longer believes the knife in evidence caused the victim’s wounds and that the prosecution knowingly delivered false testimony from witnesses.

Alice Armstrong with the Attorney General’s office in Richmond is expected to file a response to the motion on Friday.

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