LINCOLN — A state appeals court has provided an Omaha man, who was convicted of raping two sisters 38 years ago, another chance to prove his innocence.
Tuesday’s order by the Nebraska Court of Appeals means that Juneal Pratt will be allowed to test, for a second time and with newer DNA technology, stains left on the victims’ clothing from the 1975 case in hopes of exonerating himself of the crime.
“I’m so happy that we can finally put this to rest,” said Pratt’s attorney, Tracy Hightower-Henne of Omaha.
A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said that the office will file an appeal of the ruling with the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Pratt, now 57, has maintained his innocence since a jury convicted him of violently raping two sisters from Sioux City, Iowa, at a midtown Omaha motel.
In recent years, he has drawn support from the Nebraska Innocence Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions.
Pratt’s conviction was based largely on the two victims’ identification of him in voice and visual lineups that police arranged.
His supporters say that the lineups were flawed and that he was misidentified. Pratt’s mother and girlfriend also testified that he was elsewhere on the night of the assaults and that a ring he was wearing during the lineup was his girlfriend’s, not from one of the victims.
Pratt, via the state’s DNA testing law, was granted an opportunity in 2005 to test stains found on the victims’ shirts. But the testing was deemed inconclusive, and the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that it was impossible to tell how or when DNA was deposited because the victims’ shirts had been stored in the same box as Pratt’s clothing.
In 2011, citing the development of new DNA testing technology, Pratt filed another request to test the clothes. But Douglas County District Judge Russell Bowie denied the request, citing the previous ruling about the poor condition of the evidence.
Tuesday, the appeals court, in a ruling written by Judge Everett Inbody, said Bowie had abused his discretion. Inbody cited testimony from a DNA authority who said the new technology might be able to overcome the poor storage of the clothing.
Pratt’s attorney said the ideal resolution of the case would be that testing identifies someone other than Pratt as the assailant, although she said it’s also possible that another round of tests will be inconclusive.
“There’s no guarantee in anything,” said Hightower-Henne.
Besides trying to prove his innocence via DNA tests, Pratt has sought to be released on parole. One factor in failing to gain parole, though, was that he was unwilling to admit responsibility for the rapes, which led him to flunk a required sex-offender rehabilitation course.
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