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Just hours after she’d buried her boyfriend, a woman found burglars “collecting a debt” from the dead man’s home. The boyfriend had died in a July 4 boating accident that summer of 1987, and the woman decided to spend the night at his Valdosta, Ga., home on the evening of his funeral, according to a prosecutor there. The burglars were stealing $60 in cash, a jar of pennies, a .357-caliber Magnum pistol and marijuana when she startled them. They also would steal the dead man’s 1983 truck, but first, they threw a sheet over the woman’s head. One of the men then raped her at knifepoint. The Lowndes County, Ga., district attorney’s office eventually convicted then-20-year-old Joseph Lee Brown of rape, theft by taking and burglary. A co-defendant, Philip Mierzejewski, testified against Brown. Mierzejewski claimed he took no part in the rape but was collecting money he said the dead man owed him, according to the prosecutor. He received a sentence of eight years, while Brown was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole. Seventeen years later, Brown’s case caught the attention of the fledgling Georgia Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate prisoners in cases where DNA is available but wasn’t tested during the original trial. It looked like a perfect case for DNA testing because the victim had never seen her attacker, the evidence was circumstantial and the state’s main witness had received a plea deal, said the project’s director, Aimee R. Maxwell. What’s more, a rape kit and a pair of panties had been found in the clerk’s office. It turned out the court clerk routinely kept evidence in felony cases. For his part, Brown maintained his innocence. In January, a judge agreed to test the rape kit, and the DNA sample traveled from Georgia to Virginia to California before a specialized lab finally succeeded in testing it. The results heartened the district attorney but were a blow to Brown’s case: The DNA in the rape kit matched Brown’s. “Of course, we always had a high level of confidence in the conviction,” said DA J. David Miller of the Southern Circuit. “But the DNA match now proves it to a mathematical certainty. “Thank goodness for criminals with standards,” added Miller of co-defendant Mierzejewski. “He’s taking a position that he’s a burglar but not a rapist. We’d had witnesses who’d seen them together, and there was no doubt in our mind that we had the right person.” The Innocence Project’s Maxwell was philosophical about the results for Brown. While she acknowledged that she was disappointed, she said there was always a chance that he would be proven guilty. ‘NOW EVERYONE KNOWS THE TRUTH’ But she said the effort was worth it. “Not everyone who asks for our help will be innocent. But one person sitting in prison being innocent is not OK in America,” said Maxwell. “That’s just not what our justice system is about. “The bottom line, when all is said and done, is that he was only the person who knew,” said Maxwell. “Now everyone knows the truth.” Saleem D. “Sam” Dennis, a Valdosta lawyer who worked on the case pro bono for the Innocence Project, said he believes it should be called the “Georgia Truth Project.” “We are interested in the truth, and I believe in this case we have a better handle on it after getting the DNA results,” said Dennis. However, the prosecutor in Lowndes County seemed annoyed that Brown’s case had been re-opened. Miller complained that the process was a waste of time and money. It cost $10,000 to test the 17-year-old DNA. Half of the money came from county court fees and fines, and the Innocence Project paid the rest. “[Brown] lied to [the Innocence Project] about having not done it and wasted their resources,” said Miller. He also was surprised at how quickly the results came back. He said it sometimes takes the state crime lab a year to test rape kits. That’s not fair to the victims of those crimes, he said. “It took Joe Brown actually since 1987 to have his DNA tested,” countered Dennis, adding that the DNA match now shows for certain that Brown committed the crime. “Crimes victimize many, sometimes including the family of the person who is convicted of it. I now think everyone involved can rest easier,” he said. Dennis said that Brown’s mother showed visible relief upon hearing the test results. She no longer has to wonder if her son was falsely incarcerated, he said. Maxwell said that Brown understood the test results could implicate him further, but the Macon State Prison inmate was firm in his resolve to have the test done. “He understands that the science is as good as he’s going to get,” said Maxwell. She explained that the state crime lab didn’t test Brown’s results. They were sent to a commercial lab in Virginia, then to a research lab in California. Still, Brown continues to maintain his innocence. Maxwell said the Innocence Project will leave it up to him what to do now, but it’s withdrawn its extraordinary motion for a new trial. “Hopefully, outcomes like � this � will provide a much needed counterbalance against a disturbing and widespread public misperception that our prisons are filled with wrongly convicted men,” said Randall W. Duncan, deputy director for operations for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. “Victims of crime know better, and they want justice, too. Maybe it’s time for a Victims’ Project,” he quipped. LUCKY TO BE CHOSEN It was like winning the lottery for Brown’s case to be selected by the project. So far, according to Maxwell, the group has received 1,150 requests for assistance and taken only seven cases, including Brown’s. The project is investigating another 175. She said in their six remaining cases, DNA has been found in two. “But if there’s that one piece of evidence, it should be tested,” she said. The project, which is staffed mostly by interns, will continue to look for DNA samples in the other four cases. “We were very cautious,” said Maxwell, of picking Brown’s case, the first tested since the formation of the group. “We easily have 300 hours invested in the case. We tried to turn over every rock we could find, just to see if this was the kind of case we wanted to pursue.” Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the results in this case should be a lesson to those in prison who are seeking the project’s help. If they know that “the results are going to come back unfavorably to them, they will certainly think twice before asking for the test,” he said. OLD EVIDENCE PROVES TOUGH TO FIND Finding rape kits and other evidence with DNA samples is another complicating factor in cases such as Brown’s. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack, Maxwell said. First, you have to find it, because DNA samples could have been stored anywhere from the clerk’s office to the police department, she said. Second, many clerks weren’t required to keep the samples until a recent state law was passed requiring that DNA evidence be kept for 10 years. Maxwell praised Sara L. Crow, the Lowndes County clerk, for running such a tight ship and still having the rape kit that identified Brown as the rapist. Maxwell said she wasn’t surprised Brown lied to her, but she was surprised that he took the risk of having the test done. “I’ve been a criminal defense lawyer for 17 years, so I’m not terribly surprised when people lie to me. I’m not jaded, but I’m also prepared for just about anything.” She added that the DNA match will “negatively affect his chances for parole.” Said DA Miller: “Of course I thought it was going to be a waste of time and money if they were looking for something that was going to exonerate him. I didn’t have any heartburn over proving it was him. We’re not afraid of the truth.” He said he was concerned the test could be inconclusive, which would’ve thrown doubt on the conviction. Now, Miller said, he’ll contact the victim, who left Georgia, and “let her know for her peace of mind what happened and the reason why we didn’t contact her while this was all going on.” For his part, Dennis said the DNA result strengthens the legal system. “The conviction is now stronger,” said Dennis. “The victim in this case, according to the transcript, never knew for sure who had raped her, so everyone involved in this case benefited from the DNA test. The [justice] system is stronger.”

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