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The Utah Supreme Court has given two convicted killers another chance to argue they meet the standard to have the DNA evidence in their cases tested.
In separate 4-0 rulings handed down last week, the high-court justices sent the cases of Adrian Gordon and Jimmy Dean Meinhard back to 3rd District Court for further proceedings. Each had appealed the denial of a post-conviction request for DNA testing, which they say would support their claims of innocence in their respective cases.
Both men are represented by attorneys working on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. Jensie Anderson, the center's volunteer legal director, is confident the inmates will get the DNA testing they are seeking.
"In both instances, we're looking at evidence that could show who the perpetrator was," Anderson, a University of Utah law professor, said Thursday.
Gordon, now 34, is serving a prison term of five years to life for the Sept. 29, 2001, slaying of a mentally ill man behind a Salt Lake City convenience store. Prosecutors say Gordon fatally stomped 50-year-old Lee Lundskog, who went to the convenience store every day to buy cigarettes and soda, so he could steal $45 from Lundskog's wallet.
In 2013, Gordon's lawyers filed a petition for DNA testing on some of the evidence, including Lundskog's wallet and the jumpsuit he was wearing. Third District Judge Paul Maughan ruled that under Utah law, a court cannot order DNA testing when it was available at the time of trial and the defendant did not request testing or present DNA evidence for tactical reasons.
In sending the case back, Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote that the district court must first determine whether the reasons Gordon did not seek testing were tactical or nontactical. One of the reasons that Gordon has given is the fact that he could not afford it.
"On one hand, if a defendant has such limited resources that he cannot afford to engage defense resources beyond the bare payment of the fees charged by his attorneys, then it could conceivably be said that he had no choice in the matter of requesting DNA testing and thus could not have made a purposeful decision." Lee wrote. "Yet not all financial decisions are nontactical. Resource allocation, at some level, can be a core tactical decision at trial."
In Meinhard's case, his lawyers will have the opportunity to argue that testing has the potential to provide new, noncumulative evidence of the inmate's innocence, such as the presence of someone else's DNA.
Meinhard is seeking testing of DNA found under the fingernails of Ronald Reed Peterson and of a fingerprint on the door of a car where the 38-year-old Kearns resident was stabbed to death.
Now 70, Meinhard is serving a sentence of up to life in prison for Peterson's Feb. 25, 1997, slaying. The two men were seen fighting that day in Tooele and shortly after the scuffle, witnesses saw Meinhard climb into the victim's car, according to court documents.
Peterson's car was found abandoned three days later near the border of Utah and Tooele counties, and his body was found March 1, about 500 feet off of State Road 73 in Tooele County. He had been stabbed eight times, court documents say.
Meinhard's then-wife and his roommate were also charged with murder in the slaying, but the charges were dropped against them and they testified at trial for the prosecution. The roommate, Larry Thomas Taylor, claims he went with Meinhard to the abandoned car a few days after the slaying and wiped it down with bleach while wearing latex gloves.
In 2013, 3rd District Judge L.A. Dever denied a request for post-conviction testing, saying the tests were unlikely to establish factual innocence. At most, testing would show Meinhard did not touch the door handle of Peterson's car with his bare hands and that Peterson did not scratch him during the murder, the judge said.
And in arguments before the Supreme Court in October, the Utah Attorney's General's Office said testing would not exclude Meinhard as the perpetrator.