Sedley Alley went to his death based on scant physical evidence and a confession he said had been coerced. His daughter hopes DNA testing will provide answers.
April Alley had last spoken with her father when she was a girl of 10, so there was plenty of catching up to do when they met about 15 years later in the noisy visiting area of a prison in Nashville, Tennessee.
She told him about her life as an adult: college, marriage, a home near Louisville.
Her father, Sedley Alley, talked about being a convicted murderer on death row and the haze of his ragged years as an alcoholic and drug addict.
Near the end of their meeting, she posed the question that had shadowed her since childhood. Was he really a killer who had raped and impaled a young Marine?
"I asked him, 'Did you do that? If you did or not, you're still my dad and I love you,'" Alley recalled.
His reply was the same opaque answer he gave psychiatrists after his arrest in 1985 and continued to give to anyone who asked, right until his execution in 2006. He did not know.
"He said, 'If I did do it, I deserve what I get,'" April Alley said. "'But I don't remember doing it.'"
On Tuesday, Alley, 43, asked a judge in Memphis, Tennessee, to grant her what the courts had refused her father during his lifetime: DNA testing of evidence from the crime. She realises the results might cement her father's guilt, giving her an answer that he could not — or would not — provide.
"I don't want it to be like that — that he actually did it," Alley said. "But it would almost make it easier. Because the thought of all of that happening for no reason doesn't sit well with me at all."
Sedley Alley went to his death based on scant physical evidence and a confession that he claimed he had been forced to give.
Five years after he died, the Tennessee Supreme Court said that denying his request for DNA testing had been a mistake.
April Alley has become executor of his estate and "now stands in the shoes of her father, seeking the truth," her petition for testing says. It is not yet clear when the court will rule on her request. If the testing goes forward and unambiguously points to someone other than Alley as the killer, it could become the first time DNA has exonerated a person put to death in the United States.
The kind of post-mortem inquiry she seeks is "incredibly rare," said Brandon Garrett, a professor of law at Duke University.
"The prisoner is deceased, the case is closed, and the evidence is destroyed," Garrett said.
Sometimes, though, evidence is preserved. Ever since the Alley trial in 1987, the Shelby County clerk has kept exhibits that include the victim's underwear, a pair of red briefs apparently worn by the attacker and a 31-inch tree branch.
Sedley Alley's DNA was harvested while he was alive and is still in storage, according to Kelley Henry, a federal public defender who represented him in his last years.
For nearly two decades after Alley's arrest, no one disputed in court that he was the killer. His original lawyers argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. In 2003, new lawyers said a fresh investigation raised serious doubts about his guilt that only DNA tests could resolve.
Prosecutors said that the request was a stalling manoeuvre and that even if someone else's DNA were found, it would not clear Alley. They prevailed.
The crime occurred one night in July 1985. Lance Corporal Suzanne Collins, 19, left the barracks at Naval Air Station Millington, just outside Memphis, to take her daily 16km run. She had just finished nine months of avionics training.
Around 11pm, two fellow Marines running the other way crossed paths with her. Moments later, they dodged a station wagon swerving along the road, in the same direction that Collins had been running.
After it passed, they heard a woman hollering, "Don't touch me! Leave me alone!" They ran toward the shouts and saw a car, which they believed was the same station wagon, stopped on the side of the road. It sped off. A second car came their way and they tried to wave it down, but the driver did not stop. They ran to the gatehouse. A guard sounded an alarm for a possible abduction.
About an hour later, just after midnight, Sedley Alley was stopped near the base driving a rattling 1972 station wagon. A Navy investigator noted that he had no visible injuries.
Alley, then 29, was not in the service — he had been discharged some years earlier for drug and alcohol abuse — but his wife was in the Navy. After she was questioned, the investigators concluded that the jogging Marines had heard the Alleys squabbling, not an abduction.
At that point, no one knew Collins was missing. The alert for the station wagon was cancelled. The Alleys were sent home for the night. A patrol kept an eye on their house.
The next morning, Collins' body was found in a park.
She had been struck 100 times and strangled. The attacker had stripped a tree branch of twigs, sharpened the tip, then drove it through her body.
Sedley Alley, who had no criminal record, was promptly arrested. Over a period of hours, he denied knowing anything about the woman and asked for a lawyer.
But then, investigators said, before consulting anyone, he proceeded to volunteer that he had sideswiped Collins while driving drunk, accidentally stabbed her in the head with a screwdriver — both details untrue, the medical examiner testified — and staged the crime scene.
Alley would later claim the investigators had turned on the tape recorder only when he said what they wanted to hear, not during the browbeating that led up to his statement. The authorities said they had merely asked him what had happened.
They also said he showed them where Collins' body had been found, but a transcript of a recording of the car ride does not indicate that he gave any directions.
Alley's lawyers were unable to get information from him about the crime, so he was turned over to psychiatrists. One wrote that he "did not seem overtly delusional, except in his assessment of the police tactics and his belief that they would have beaten him if he had not confessed to the crime, said they could have gotten away with it because they were the police."
The physical evidence in the case, analysed with the primitive tools available in 1985, was suggestive but far from conclusive. Authorities reported finding Type O blood, the same as the victim's and Alley's, on the driver's door of the station wagon. Paper napkins from Danver's, a regional restaurant chain, were on the floor of his car as well as near the body, the investigators said. Also in the car was proof that he had been in the vicinity of the crime: an air conditioner pump that had been installed earlier in the day at a house near where Collins had been running. Plainly, Alley had stolen it.
However, no traces of Collins — no fingerprints, hair or blood — were found inside his car or, for that matter, on Alley. No physical evidence showed he had been in a prolonged struggle with a 19-year-old Marine in excellent condition.
April Alley spoke to a reporter in March in Louisville, where she works in human resources for a hospital. As a teenager, she said, she was turned against her father by a hostile relative.
In her 20s, she reconnected with him at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. He was frank about his drug and alcohol use, she said, and told her that he had confessed under threat. She became inclined to believe him.
In 2003, an investigator, April Higuera, turned up an undisclosed handwritten note by the medical examiner estimating that Collins died after Sedley Alley had been sent home and kept under police watch.
Higuera also located a romantic partner of Collins who drove a station wagon and was about the same height, 5-foot-8, as a man seen near the abduction. Alley was 20cm taller.
Citing these discoveries, Henry, the lawyer, said: "We tried every way possible to get back into court and to get DNA."
Across the country, views on post-conviction DNA testing have changed as more wrongful convictions have come to light. All 50 states now give prisoners some access to DNA testing, although the hurdles vary.
If the evidence is tested, the results could be compared to a national registry of DNA collected from offenders and unsolved crimes, and to genetic genealogy databases, said Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project.
The case was reopened by the organisation after Scheck received a tip that a man charged last year with murder and rapes in Missouri had also been stationed at Millington base for some of the time Collins was there. (Military records show that the man had been sent to a base in California before the slaying.)
As Alley's execution approached, he tried to forbid April and his son, David, from attending. They insisted, and just after 1:30am on June 28, 2006, took seats at the front of the witness room.
Blinds were still shut on the viewing window, but audio was already being piped in. They heard him coming.
"Chains clanking," April Alley said.
When the blinds opened, Sedley Alley lay on a steel gurney. An intravenous line ran from a wall into his right arm. He turned to his daughter and son. They stood and pressed their hands to the glass.
Someone yelled that they were blocking the view.
Written by: Jim Dwyer
Photographs by: Luke Sharrett
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