04/18/10 — Neal trial to begin Monday

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Neal trial to begin Monday

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on April 18, 2010 1:50 AM

William J. Neal

Genetic evidence freed a wrongfully imprisoned man after 18 years -- the same DNA evidence the state will use against defendant William Jackson Neal in a rape trial starting Monday.

Neal, 54, is accused the rape of a then 12-year-old girl, allegedly crawling through a window of her Jefferson Park home in September 1987.

Now exonerated, Dwayne Dail, then 20 and living on Old Route 11, was wrongfully convicted in the first trial for the rape in March 1989.

He then spent nearly 18 years in prison as his sister, Diana Davis, worked tirelessly to free him -- she never believed that her brother could have been responsible.

His sister's efforts proved fruitless until she contacted the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, established in 2000 in Durham.

People affiliated with the center began probing and located a long-forgotten parcel of evidence at the Goldsboro Police Department.

Among other things, investigators discovered the nightgown the victim was wearing the night of the crime. Genetic evidence was still intact on the garment, authorities say.

After DNA tests were completed, Dail's innocence was granted because analysis of the spot on the nightgown ruled him out as the perpetrator.

Now, after years of police investigation and preparation for the trial, Goldsboro authorities have said they are satisfied Neal is the man responsible for the girl's rape.

District Attorney Branny Vickory said he is representing the state in the case, along with Assistant District Attorney Mike Ricks.

"(Ricks) has been the lead on this," Vickory said. "We'll start out with motions on Monday morning, and then go to jury selection, hopefully. We're going to try and go ahead and get some resolution to this case."

Attorney Chris Rogerson of Kinston, who is representing Neal, did not return phone calls for comment.

Rogerson argued in a hearing before Judge Arnold O. Jones, the presiding judge, that Neal could not receive a fair trial in Wayne County.

Before his request for a change of venue was denied by Jones, Rogerson argued that both local and national media coverage of Dail's case would make selection of an impartial jury impossible.

Neal is already serving an active prison term on primary charges of admitted status as a habitual felon and for breaking and entering.

He could face a life term or more if convicted of the charges related to the rape, including first-degree rape of a child, first-degree sex offense with a child, first-degree burglary and indecent liberties with a child.

Chris Mumma, the director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, helped pursue Dail's freedom through contact with Vickory and by representing Dail in the matter.

Ms. Mumma said Dail had changed his original plan to attend Neal's trial.

"He's just decided that it's emotionally too much for him," Ms. Mumma said.

According to the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, Dail is one of many people whose lives have been dramatically changed by new DNA evidence.

By the Center on Actual Innocence's count, Dail was the 207th person nationwide to have been exonerated by DNA evidence.

Since Dail's release, the number has grown to 252, Ms. Mumma said.

And in nearly half of those cases, the evidence led to charges against someone else, she said.

"In the 252 DNA exonerations, 45 percent of those, the true perpetrator has been convicted," the director said.

In North Carolina, five of seven exonerations based on DNA evidence have also led to convictions, Ms. Mumma said.

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn is executive director of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a body formed by state law in 2006 and beginning operations in 2007.

The body considers pleas of innocence when "credible and verifiable evidence that was not previously heard by the fact finders in a jury" is a factor.

Ms. Montgomery-Blinn said child sex offense cases are the second-most common type of crime submitted for review.

"(About) 17.28 percent of cases that have applied to us have been child sex offenses," Ms. Montgomery-Blinn said, adding that kidnapping charges often are involved with those cases.

"That very often goes together," she said.

The most common type of case submitted to the Innocence Inquiry Commission -- on which Vickory serves as an alternate member -- is murder, the executive director said.

"Murder ... (represents) 22.68 percent of the cases," she said.

The commission also just received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for related homicide and sex offense cases with possibly exculpatory DNA evidence, Ms. Montgomery-Blinn said.

That allowed for the hiring of two new staff attorneys, who investigate claims of innocence when it is decided they might have merit.

Ms. Mumma said she will put her faith in the justice system to determine if Neal is the man responsible for the 1987 rape. Also, the trial will give her former client and friend a sense of closure, she said.

"I think the truth has prevailed in Dwayne's case, and I hope it will in Mr. Neal's case as well," Ms. Mumma said.