JACKSON, Mississippi — The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the reliability of DNA evidence used to convict Joe Cotton in the death of a woman in Tunica County nearly two decades ago.
In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the court's majority said "when DNA material is found in a location inconsistent with casual contact and absent a 'reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence,' DNA evidence alone can be sufficient to support a conviction."
Justice Ann Lamar, writing for the majority, said, however, every conviction "relying on DNA evidence must stand on its own merits."
Defense attorneys had attacked the DNA evidence as unreliable.
Fannie Lee Burks was slain in her apartment in 1995. At that time, the slaying was deemed unsolved, and the case went cold.
However, in 2008, the Tunica County Sheriff's Office tested biological evidence that was found under Burks' fingernails at the time of her death. The evidence had been stored in the property room.
The DNA profile found under the fingernails of her right hand was consistent with that of Joe Cotton. In 2011, Cotton was charged with Burks' murder. He was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison.
Cotton's attorney George Holmes said the only contact between the two was when Burks gave him a sandwich bag when he stopped at the cafe where she worked. Holmes said if the contact had been violent there would have been more material to test.
Prosecutors argued the DNA testing found material from Burks and an unknown male, which was eventually found to be Cotton's.
Lamar said because Cotton's DNA was found under Burks's fingernails, a circumstance inconsistent with casual contact, the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's guilty verdict.
Justice Jim Kitchens, in a dissent joined by three other justices, said prosecutors did not prove Cotton's death beyond a reasonable doubt.
Kitchens said there was no evidence of a murder weapon, no evidence of Cotton's having been near the victim's apartment around the time of the murder and no evidence to show that his DNA had been deposited under Burks's fingernails during the murder.
Based on the evidence at the trial, Kitchens said "the DNA material was found in a location consistent with casual contact and that there was a reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence."