In Alabama, Decades-Delayed Justice In A Double Homicide—Or A Brand New Injustice?
Police in Ozark said they solved the 1999 murders of two teenage girls using a genealogy database. But Coley McCraney‘s attorneys say that the case against their client is far from certain.
On Aug. 1, 1999, Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley were found dead in the back of Beasley’s car with gunshot wounds to the head. The 17-year-old girls had left their homes in Dothan, Alabama, for a birthday party the previous night. Their bodies were discovered about 20 miles from Dothan in Ozark, a small town in the southeastern part of the state.
Their murders went unsolved for nearly 20 years, baffling Ozark law enforcement and inspiring multiple true crime podcasts. But in March, Ozark police announced the arrest of Coley McCraney, 45, for shooting the pair to death and raping Beasley. Police said the case was broken with the help of a public genealogy database. In April 2018, similar sleuthing in California led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo in the Golden State Killer case: Law enforcement said that DNA found at crime scenes partially matched the DNA of a relative found on open-source genealogy website GEDmatch, where people can upload their ancestry results from popular websites such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe to find potential relatives.
On June 10, a grand jury indicted McCraney on five counts of capital murder. Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams is seeking the death penalty in the case. A week later, McCraney’s attorneys, David Harrison and Andrew Scarborough, wrote in a filing that the March 18 press conference about McCraney’s arrest made it seem like “the case was solved, DNA doesn’t lie, and they have finally brought closure to the victims’ families.”
Harrison told The Appeal that his client, a bishop at a local church, maintains his innocence and that he has evidence that will exonerate him. Harrison also said that Ozark Police attempted to use a jailhouse informant to obtain information from McCraney in order to bring closure to the long-unsolved case. Additionally, the district attorney’s office is attempting to bar the public and the media from pretrial hearings in the case. On June 21, two local media companies, alongside the Alabama Broadcasters Association and the Alabama Press Association, filed a motion arguing that barring media from court hearings would violate the First Amendment.
“This case is one of those cases that’s got too many loopholes, too many things that indicate that someone else did it,” Harrison told The Appeal. “This is Deep South Alabama and contrary to what people believe, a Black man and white man’s not on equal grounds.”
Ozark, a town with a population of roughly 15,000, is northwest of Dothan in Alabama’s Wiregrass region, which is divided among Dale, Henry, and Houston counties. A 2011 federal civil rights lawsuit against former Henry and Houston County DA Douglas A. Valeska claimed that from 2006 to 2010, prosecutors illegally struck Black people from juries in capital murder trials, resulting in juries that were either all white or had just one Black juror. And Emanuel Gissendanner, a Black man who was sentenced to death in 2003 for a robbery, kidnapping, and murder in Dale County, was recently freed under an Alford plea after the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that his trial counsel failed to interview alibi witnesses.
The state’s case against McCraney hinges on DNA evidence found on Beasley’s sweater, sperm fragments on her underwear, and a vaginal swab that prosecutors say show that McCraney raped Beasley, according to a lab report filed with the court on April 1. Autopsy reports from 1999 indicate that rape kits were administered to both girls but the results have not been publicly released.
Shortly after the April 2018 break in the Golden State Killer case, Ozark police sent crime scene DNA evidence to Parabon NanoLabs, a forensic consulting firm, for testing. At Parabon, the genetic material was uploaded to GEDMatch.
In a press conference in March, the leader of Parabon’s genetic genealogy team said her colleagues were not able to find a match to the crime scene DNA within the third cousin range or to create a list of probable suspects. However, Parabon did build a family tree with several probable surnames. On March 19, Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker told the New York Times that he scanned the list and recognized one of the surnames—McCraney—because he had gone to high school with McCraney.
Later, police asked McCraney for his DNA with the hopes that he would be related to the suspect and help flesh out the family tree. McCraney then voluntarily submitted his DNA.
The lab results indicated a “high degree of confidence” that McCraney was a match on Beasley’s sweater and underwear.
Through a spokesperson, Walker declined an interview with The Appeal because of the “ongoing process of the case and ongoing investigations.”
Sandra Thompson, a forensics expert and law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, warned that although DNA can be valuable, it also should not be the only evidence that police rely on to make an arrest. “It’s a lead, it narrows down the range of suspects but you can have mistakes made along the way but that’s true with other kinds of evidence as well,” she told The Appeal. “If you find DNA at a crime scene that may or may not tell you the identity of the perpetrator. The DNA might be there for some other reason. … I think it has to be weighed properly by law enforcement and they can’t just jump to conclusions.”
Police have not identified a motive in the killings of Hawlett and Beasley. In an April hearing, an Ozark Police lieutenant testified that in 1999, McCraney lived less than a mile from where the car containing Hawlett and Beasley’s bodies was found.
Harrison, McCraney’s attorney, told The Appeal that police interrogated McCraney for 27 hours after his arrest. During that time, Harrison said, McCraney requested an attorney at least five times but was not given access to counsel.
Despite their announcement that they identified McCraney as the killer, police allegedly made further attempts to bolster their case against him by interrogating at least one incarcerated person about him. In a motion filed on June 14, McCraney’s attorneys alleged that on June 13 police questioned Gissendanner about McCraney at the Ozark police station when he was brought to Dale County for a hearing in his capital case. According to McCraney’s attorney, one lieutenant told Gissendanner that “we need something, anything we can get on this guy [McCraney].”
Gissendanner was then placed in a cell with McCraney, the filing says. According to Harrison, McCraney had not shared a cell with anyone since he was incarcerated in March. Once in the cell, Harrison said, Gissendanner told McCraney that police wanted to use him as an informant in his case. The following week, Gissendanner entered an Alford plea in his own case that allowed him to be immediately freed instead of waiting for a new trial, which had been granted in 2010 by the Dale County Circuit court.
Gissendanner’s attorney, Becca Wahlquist, told The Appeal that her client is from the same neighborhood as McCraney and that their families knew each other. She confirmed that police asked Gissendanner if he had incriminating information about McCraney. She said he told them that he did not.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know when something stinks and this thing stinks,” Harrison told The Appeal. “For a law enforcement agency to go on national TV and say ‘We got our guy, DNA don’t lie, we’re going for the death penalty,’ and then prior to the trial they’re asking someone … that they need information on it, something don’t smell right to me.”
Informants are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases. A 2016 report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School found that more than 45 percent of all wrongful capital convictions are due to criminal informants. In 2012, USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath revealed that a jailhouse informant in Atlanta ran a scheme where he sold information to other prisoners that they could then offer to federal agents to receive reduced sentences for themselves.
“Jailhouse informants often come into being in order to corroborate other evidence in a case sometimes deeply flawed or with faulty evidence,” Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and expert on informants, told The Appeal. She added that the use of informants can derail an otherwise strong case. “They’re a little like salt. Sometimes we use them out of habit, sometimes more than we should in dishes that don’t need it.”
After local media reported on the Ozark police’s alleged attempt to use Gissendanner as an informant, the Dale County DA’s office filed a motion to “control pretrial publicity … with the aim of preserving a neutral jury pool.” Prosecutors proposed barring the public and media from pretrial hearings, imposing a gag order on everyone involved with the case, and sealing all records and transcripts until a jury is empaneled. A county judge will rule on the motion on Aug. 8.
Harrison said the state’s interest in barring reporters from covering the case comes after it released information such as the DNA test results and other evidence to the media.“The prosecution has actively participated in the saturation and contamination of the jury pool in this case,” he wrote in a June 17 response to the state’s motion..
According to Harrison, the case is not expected to go to trial for at least 18 months. “Our guy is innocent,” he said.
Tracie Hawlett’s mother, Carol Roberts, however, believes that Ozark police have found the person who killed her daughter. “We’ve been through pure hell for the last 20 years,” Roberts told local news station WSFA. “I know we’re going to have to go through a lot more because we’re going to have to relive it again, but I’m ready to relive it. I’m ready to put somebody behind bars, get them prosecuted, and get this over with. Maybe we can sleep at night then.”