LINCOLN — Leroy Parmar Jr. took the witness stand in 1988 and tried unsuccessfully to convince a Douglas County jury that he didn't kill a man for a few hundred bucks.
Recent DNA testing of two bloodstained bedsheets from the Omaha crime scene has raised what Parmar's words could not — reasonable doubt.
The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday ordered a new trial for Parmar, after the DNA test results appeared to contradict eyewitness testimony at his trial. It was only the second time that DNA has reversed a murder conviction in the state.
Rob Kortus, an attorney with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, revealed the ruling to his 54-year-old client, now serving a life sentence at the state prison in Tecumseh.
“He said his prayers had been answered,” Kortus said Friday. “He was very happy.”
The ruling produced an opposite reaction among Douglas County prosecutors, who said they were shocked the Supreme Court ordered a new trial. Prosecutors plan to request a new hearing so the high court can reconsider the ruling.
Brenda Beadle, chief deputy Douglas County attorney, said Parmar's case isn't comparable to the case of 2008 DNA results that led to the exoneration of six people in the killing of a Beatrice woman.
The high court's ruling didn't free Parmar but determined that the DNA testing could have changed the verdict had it been available in 1988.
“So while the results did not exonerate Parmar … his DNA testing results tend to create a reasonable doubt that he was a participant,” said an opinion written by Judge William Connolly.
The high court reversed an earlier ruling by Douglas County District Judge J Russell Derr, who said the tests failed to outweigh testimony from two eyewitnesses who implicated Parmar.
The case goes back to April 16, 1987, when Fred Cox, 45, was found on the bedroom floor of his apartment at 3453 Ames Ave., his wrists and ankles bound. An autopsy determined he died from asphyxiation, apparently when his neck was pushed against the floor.
Parmar had been staying in his girlfriend's apartment in the same building.
Testimony showed Cox had spent the previous day and night drinking after receiving a $1,000 property settlement from his ex-wife. Another resident of the building, Michelle Carrigan, testified that Cox had hired her to perform a sex act on him and that she noticed a stash of cash under his mattress.
Carrigan said she told other building residents about the money and eventually she, Parmar and his girlfriend hatched a plan to rob Cox.
At trial, Carrigan said Parmar put a nylon stocking over his head and forced his way into Cox's apartment after Carrigan convinced Cox to open the door. Parmar pummeled Cox, she said, and at one point, she saw him on top of the victim in the bedroom.
Also facing a potential life sentence, Carrigan cut a deal with prosecutors to testify against Parmar. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 4½ years in prison.
Two other witnesses called by the prosecution were problematic for Parmar. Valerie Washington, who was Cox's roommate and was present during the assault, identified Parmar as the robber. And a janitor said he saw Parmar standing outside the building, wearing gloves and holding a rifle.
The two witnesses who said they saw the assault testified Parmar was the only male assailant in the apartment.
Parmar filed a motion for DNA testing in 2005. The District Court granted the request in 2008 but later refused to overturn the conviction. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court took place in December 2010.
Testing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center revealed two male DNA samples on one of the sheets. One set of DNA belonged to the victim, but the tests ruled out Parmar as the contributor of the second DNA sample.
Beadle, the prosecutor, said it's impossible to pinpoint when the unidentified male DNA got on the bedsheet. It could have been present for days, weeks or months before the killing. It could have been skin cells, semen or blood, she said.
A bedsheet — especially one in an apartment frequented by a prostitute — could be a virtual cesspool of DNA, Beadle said.
Kortus said all the witnesses had credibility problems. And, he said, the case had evidentiary problems beyond the bedsheet. A box of evidence — including one holding the pantyhose worn over the killer's head — went missing from the Douglas County Courthouse after the trial.
Kortus said he wanted to test the pantyhose for possible DNA samples. Instead, he got the bedsheet. And he got his client a new trial.
As for the second DNA sample on the bedsheet, Kortus said: “Can the state find an explanation for that? I imagine they could try. What the (Supreme) Court is saying is that the DNA evidence may have made a difference. It's an issue for a jury to decide.”
The ruling marks the second time a murder conviction has been reversed under the DNA Testing Act of 2001.
In the 2008 case, Joseph White was released after serving 20 years of a life sentence when DNA testing showed that another man raped and murdered a Beatrice widow in 1985.
White's conviction involved five co-defendants who had cut deals with the prosecution. The DNA findings led to pardons in a case that became known as the “Beatrice Six.”
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