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Lambert v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

November 16, 2018


          Appeal from the Superior Court, First Judicial District, Trial Court No. 1JU-10-551 CI, Juneau, William B. Carey, Judge.

          Michael Schwaiger, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Elizabeth T. Burke, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Allard, Judge, Coats, Senior Judge, [*] and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [**] [Mannheimer, Chief Judge, not participating]


         In 1982, Ann Benolken and her husband, James Benolken, were discovered brutally murdered in their Juneau apartment. Both victims had been sexually assaulted.

         The physical evidence at the murder scene indicated that there were at least two perpetrators. The State charged Emmanuel Telles and nineteen-year-old Newton Patric Lambert as principals and accomplices in the murders. The two men were tried separately. At Lambert's trial, the jury convicted Lambert of Ann Benolken's murder but acquitted him of James Benolken's murder. Telles was acquitted of both murders at his later trial.

         In 2010, almost thirty years after the Benolken murders, the Alaska legislature enacted a post-conviction DNA testing statutory scheme.[1] These statutes created a procedural mechanism through which defendants who claimed to be factually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted could seek DNA testing of material physical evidence that could support their claim of innocence.[2] Lambert filed an application under the new statutes, seeking DNA testing of the only physical evidence remaining in his case - forensic samples of the blood and semen stains found on Mr. Benolken's clothing. Lambert argued that DNA testing of the blood and semen samples could lead to the identification of the true perpetrators of this double murder, thereby raising a reasonable probability that Lambert was wrongfully convicted of Mrs. Benolken's murder.

         The State opposed the proposed DNA testing and the superior court ultimately denied Lambert's application, concluding that Lambert had failed to show that the proposed testing of blood and semen on Mr. Benolken's clothing could raise a reasonable probability that Lambert was not guilty of Mrs. Benolken's murder, given all of the State's evidence that directly linked Lambert to Mrs. Benolken's murder.

         For the reasons explained here, we affirm this ruling.

         Factual background and prior proceedings

         On April 6, 1982, a Juneau building manager entered the apartment of James and Ann Benolken due to a bad smell emanating from the apartment. Inside the apartment, the manager found the Benolkens' bodies. Both the husband and the wife had been sexually assaulted and violently killed.

         Mrs. Benolken's body was found naked and lying face up on a bloody mattress on the floor. The mattress was saturated with blood, and there was blood spray extending six to seven feet up the wall at the head of the mattress. At trial, the medical examiner testified that Mrs. Benolken had been stabbed approximately sixty times. A broken piece of a knife was found beneath Mrs. Benolken's body, and strands of hair were found between her legs. To the immediate left of Mrs. Benolken's body was a void in the blood spatter. The State's expert later testified that this void was consistent with a person kneeling next to the body during the murder. A paper bag with a liquor bottle was found within arm's reach of where that person would have been kneeling. A single latent fingerprint was found on the paper bag. The fingerprint was later identified as belonging to Lambert.

         Mr. Benolken's body was lying next to the bloody mattress, with his body bent over and his face lying on the mattress. Mr. Benolken's body was still clothed, and there was a bloodstain on his shirt and a semen stain on his pants. The medical examination indicated that both Mr. and Mrs. Benolken had been sexually assaulted.

         The police investigated multiple suspects, but their investigation ultimately focused on Lambert.[3] In addition to Lambert's fingerprint on the paper bag, Lambert had also been seen by a Juneau police officer near the Benolkens' apartment on the morning after the murders occurred. Witnesses had also seen two dark-haired men with Mr. Benolken in the apartment building the night before the murders. (Lambert has dark hair.)

         However, when Lambert was questioned by the police, Lambert denied having been near the building that morning. Lambert told the police that he had been drinking heavily the night before and had woken up in a cave under Gastineau Avenue. He claimed to have no idea how his fingerprint could have ended up on the paper bag found next to Mrs. Benolken's murdered body.

         Shortly after his interview with the police, Lambert went to a friend, Gary Moses, and asked him to lie to the police on his behalf. Moses reported this conversation to the police, and Moses later testified to this conversation at trial. Moses's girlfriend, who was present during the conversation, corroborated Moses's account.

         During the course of their investigation, the police also discovered that Lambert had gone to a local emergency room the day after the murder with a wound on his arm. At trial, the State introduced evidence that the wound could have either been caused by broken glass or by the broken knife found under Mrs. Benolken. (The Benolken apartment had a window with broken glass.) The State also introduced evidence that Lambert had bought a new knife a few days after the murder occurred.

         The State introduced additional evidence from two jailhouse informants who testified that Lambert had confessed to them while he was in j ail following his arrest on the murder charges. The first jailhouse informant, Robert Ewers, was housed with Lambert at Ketchikan Correctional Center. Ewers testified that Lambert confessed to stabbing Mrs. Benolken while his co-defendant, Emannuel Telles, killed Mr. Benolken. Ewers also testified that Lambert said that he had thrown the knife he used to kill Mrs. Benolken in the water.

         The second jailhouse informant, Jeff Bowen, was housed with Lambert at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. Bowen testified that Lambert confessed to stabbing and raping Mrs. Benolken while Telles raped and killed Mr. Benolken. According to Bowen, Lambert said that he stabbed Mrs. Benolken to make her stop screaming while he raped her. Bowen also testified that Lambert told him that he threw the knife in the channel after the murders. (The Juneau police officer who saw Lambert near the Benolkens' apartment building on the morning of the murder testified that Lambert was in the general area where Lambert told Bower he threw the knife into the channel.)

         Lastly, the State introduced the testimony of Michael Malone, an FBI expert on microscopic comparative hair analysis. Malone testified that, in his expert opinion, the strands of hair found between Mrs. Benolken's legs came from an Alaska Native and the hair visually "matched" sample hairs taken from Lambert, who is Alaska Native. According to Malone, the visual match meant that there was only a one-in-five thousand chance that the strands of hair did not belong to Lambert.

         (We note that the reliability of this expert testimony is seriously in dispute. Since the advent of DNA testing, microscopic comparative hair analysis has come under increased scrutiny, and there is now significant doubt as to its scientific reliability.[4] Agent Malone's expert testimony has been discredited in other cases, and there has been at least one case in which a defendant who was convicted based on Agent Malone's testimony has since been exonerated by DNA testing.[5] According to the record, Lambert is litigating the reliability of Agent Malone's testimony separately and that issue is not currently before us in this appeal.)

         Lambert testified in his own defense at trial. In his trial testimony, Lambert admitted that he lied to the police about his whereabouts on the night of the murder, and he admitted that he was at the Benolkens' apartment when the Benolkens were murdered. Lambert testified that he had ingested cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, LSD, and alcohol that night, and that he had a very limited memory of what had occurred. Lambert recalled having a seizure, seeing "red flashes," waking up in the Benolkens' bathtub, and discovering their murdered bodies in the living room. Lambert denied any involvement in the murders, although he testified that "[a]t one point [he] thought [he] might have done it."

         During closing arguments, the State argued it had proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lambert had killed Mrs. Benolken and had aided and abetted another person - either Telles or someone else - in killing Mr. Benolken. Lambert's attorney argued that the State had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lambert was anything other than an innocent bystander to a brutal double murder committed by any number of other people.

         After deliberating for two days, the jury convicted Lambert of first-degree murder for the intentional killing of Mrs. Benolken. However, the jury acquitted Lambert of killing Mr. Benolken. Lambert was sentenced to 99 years to serve.

         Lambert's co-defendant, Emmanuel Telles, was later tried for the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Benolken at a separate trial. The jury acquitted Telles of both murders. A few years after these acquittals, Telles died.

         Lambert appealed his conviction for Mrs. Benolken's murder to this Court. We affirmed Lambert's conviction and his sentence in an unpublished memorandum decision.[6]

         The enactment of Alaska's post-conviction DNA testing statutory scheme

         In 2010, almost thirty years after the Benolken murders, the Alaska legislature enacted AS 12.73, Alaska's post-conviction DNA testing statutory scheme. Under AS 12.73.010, a person convicted of a felony crime against a person under AS 11.41 may apply to the superior court for an order for DNA testing of physical evidence in their case.[7] The application must be filed in the court that entered the judgment of conviction, and a copy must be sent to the prosecuting authority responsible for obtaining the conviction.[8]

         An application filed under AS 12.73.010 must specifically identify the evidence sought to be tested, [9] and it must include facts from which the court can make the findings required under AS 12.73.020.[10] The application must include, inter alia, an affidavit in which the defendant swears under oath that he or she is factually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted - i.e., the person must swear under oath that they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted, nor did they commit any lesser included offense, solicit another person to commit the crime, or aid or abet another person in planning or committing the crime.[11]

         Alaska Statute 12.73.020(7) requires that the defendant "identify a theory of defense that would establish the [defendant's] innocence."[12] Unlike its federal counterpart, Alaska's post-conviction DNA testing statute does not require this theory of defense to be consistent with the defense that was raised at trial.[13]

         Alaska Statute 12.73.020(9) also requires the defendant to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that:

[t]he proposed DNA testing of the specific evidence may produce new material evidence that would
(A) support the theory of defense described in [AS 12.73.020(7)]; and
(B) raise a reasonable probability that the applicant did not commit ...

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