HUNTINGTON - Attorneys for a man convicted of second-degree murder asked Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson on Wednesday to allow them to test DNA evidence that could help prove the man's innocence.
Joshua Tepfer is representing Justin Black pro bono through The Exoneration Project, which is based out of the University of Chicago Law School.
Tepfer said DNA evidence could help prove Black was not involved in the 2002 death of 21-year-old Deanna L. Crawford and may point to someone completely different than who investigators had in mind at the time.
Ferguson told Tepfer, who was accompanied by Black and Charleston attorney Timothy DiPiero, that he needed time to review the case and would make a decision in three to four weeks.
Black and three others were arrested in Crawford's death years after her body was discovered. Brian Emerson Dement pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2007 while Black, who was then 24, and two other defendants - brothers Nathaniel and Phillip Barnett - took their cases to trial and maintained their innocence.
Black was sentenced to 40 years in prison, Nathaniel Barnett received a 15-year sentence, and Philip Barnett was given a maximum 25-year sentence.
Retired Cabell Circuit Judge John Cummings heard Black's case, which was prosecuted by now Circuit Judge Chris Chiles. Ferguson had sentenced both the Barnett brothers.
Prosecutors said Crawford, a known prostitute, and the four men had attended a party at the residence of Black's mother along Hickory Ridge Road days before her body was found beaten and strangled on Aug. 8, 2002, in a secluded area of Salt Rock.
West Virginia State Police say Black drove Crawford and the three other men to a secluded area.
Dement testified to hitting Crawford once, dragging her by the neck and leaving her with the other men.
While Black gave investigators a statement regarding his involvement, Tepfer said he did it after hours of interrogation and thought if he told police what they wanted to hear, he could go home. He did, in fact, go home after he gave the statement, and before he had the opportunity to recant, he had already been charged.
While Black now maintains he did not know Crawford and the entire story of how she was killed was made up, Tepfer said Dement testified that Black hit the woman, and traces of his DNA could be found on her if that statement were true.
Noting it sounds "outlandish," Tepfer also said suspected serial killer Neal Falls, who was killed in Charleston last year after attempting to murder a woman, could have killed Crawford.
"I'm not saying I know that the DNA is going to hit to Mr. Falls but when you examine the request that we're making, you have to think about that possibility," Tepfer said to Ferguson.
Meanwhile, Cabell County Prosecutor Sean "Corky" Hammers argued that DNA evidence would not be enough to prove Black's innocence because he was convicted of second-degree murder for aiding and abetting. His DNA likely will not be found on the evidence collected from Crawford and the crime scene, he said.
Tepfer said the DNA would be tested by the defense team at no charge to the county.