04/27/10 — Neal trial headed for final argument

View Archive

Neal trial headed for final argument

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on April 27, 2010 1:46 PM

Closing arguments in the rape trial of William J. Neal were expected to begin today in Wayne County Superior Court after both the prosecution and defense finished presenting evidence on Monday.

Neal is charged with raping a 12-year-old girl in 1987 -- a crime for which another man was convicted and spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated.

Thursday's testimony again focused on genetic evidence prosecutors hope to use to prove Neal is the real rapist.

His lawyer, Christopher Rogerson, continued to examine what he maintains were improper practices for handling the chain of evidence in the decades-old case.

One witness Rogerson called to the stand was Dr. Heather Coyle, an assistant professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven in New Hampshire.

Rogerson asked her about concerns that she had about the evidence, starting with the first examination of DNA by SBI Agent Lucy Milks in 1987.

Ms. Milks testified that she never analyzed the state's primary piece of evidence against Neal, a nightgown belonging to the victim that had a bodily fluid spot.

Another SBI agent, Kristen Hughes, had already testified that the DNA evidence matched Neal in the 13 areas used by law enforcement to identify suspects.

However, Ms. Milks also testified she did not examine the gown because she found DNA evidence in a "rape kit" conducted by Wayne Memorial Hospital.

Then, during a second analysis of the evidence, Ms. Milks testified that the gown was not resubmitted.

Rogerson asked Dr. Coyle, who was being paid $100 per hour for analysis and testimony, if that was a problem.

"I'd be very concerned that the evidence was missing and not available for testing," Dr. Coyle said. "I'd wonder where it was, and I'd wonder if there were additional items that were available for testing."

The defense witness also criticized the Goldsboro police evidence room, known as the "bicycle room."

In the mid-2000s, four evidence technicians moved all of the existing evidence from older cases in a much smaller evidence room inside the police department to the "bicycle room." The larger room is not climate-controlled, meaning that the evidence in the Neal case spent a few years subjected to the cold of winter and heat of summer.

The forensic science professor said she also did not care for the way evidence was stored.

"Well, it's not very well organized. It's a bunch of boxes and cans. Some of the items are sealed, some are not as well sealed. Basically, it's a little jumbled," Dr. Coyle said.

District Attorney Branny Vickory cross-examined the witness, and objected to the fact that she used only the paper records of the SBI to perform her analysis.

"You gathered up a certain amount of information from these paper documents, and you tell the jury how the SBI messed up," Vickory said. "You've never spoken to me ... about where the evidence is located, or how it was located."

Dr. Coyle said she does not conduct interviews when preparing to testify in trials.

"As an expert, I do an independent review," she testified. "I don't do interviews. I look at documents and the scientific (evidence)."

Vickory said there is no dispute that the evidence had been locked up at the Goldsboro Police Department since the original case, and the envelope containing the gown still had the original seal on it.

"Would that affect your opinion any?" Vickory asked.

Dr. Coyle maintained she had concerns about the chain of handling of the evidence.

Vickory argued that the evidence was not "missing" because an SBI agent had written that the gown was not resubmitted during a second round of testing during Neal's original trial.

"The idea that it's been missing, you got that from (agent) Lucy Milks' notes," Vickory said.

After Dr. Coyle was interviewed, Rogerson renewed a motion to dismiss based upon a lack of chain of custody of evidence.

The judge denied the motion.