The state must hold four separate trials for Homer Jackson – one for each of the women he’s accused of killing over the course of 10 years – because the murders don’t reflect a distinct “signature crime,” a judge has ruled.
Each woman was African American, worked as a prostitute in Portland and died from asphyxiation, but there are many differences in their cases, Multnomah County Judge Michael A. Greenlick concluded.
Those include the women’s ages, how they were killed, their injuries, where their bodies were found and the type of DNA evidence discovered, Greenlick said.
“Despite some similarities, it is not possible to conclude that the methodology utilized in these case is so distinctive as to earmark the acts as the handiwork of the accused,’’ the judge said in a 10-page order.
Greenlick also downplayed the significance of the DNA evidence that police have offered.
It doesn’t prove that Jackson killed any of the women nor does it prove Jackson was even present at the time of their deaths, considering that there were multiple DNA profiles found on or near each of the bodies, Greenlick said.
The ruling marks the second significant setback to the state. Greenlick previously suppressed an alleged confession made by Jackson, now 60.
He was originally taken into custody in a high-profile arrest five years ago, accused of being a serial killer in deaths of four women in the 1980s. After the confession ruling, prosecutors dropped all charges in one of the killings, the 1983 death of Essie Jackson, and added charges in a 1993 killing.
The judge pointed out that the state in its own legal filings acknowledged that “without the evidence considered as a whole,’’ it’s unlikely that prosecutors can prove the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecution has filed a notice seeking an expedited appeal of Greenlick’s decision to the Oregon Supreme Court.
“We see these cases as all being intertwined – each as being circumstantial evidence of the other,’’ Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Snowden said at a recent hearing. “The case rests on the evidence being considered as a whole, otherwise it’s out of context.’’
Meanwhile, defense lawyers have asked that Greenlick release Jackson as he awaits the trials.
They said the case has languished since Jackson’s arrest and the judge’s latest ruling exposes the state’s weak evidence. They’ve asked for Jackson to be placed on house arrest at his mother’s Northeast Portland home.
“The proof is not evident nor the presumption strong that Homer Jackson is guilty of the charges brought against him. As such, he is eligible for release and should be released at this time,” wrote Jackson’s lawyers, Greg Scholl and Dean Smith.
They also cited concerns about Jackson’s risk of contracting the new coronavirus due to his physical ailments.
Prosecutors object to his release.
Jackson has pleaded not guilty to a recently amended indictment that charges him with 15 counts of first-degree murder in the asphyxiation deaths of:
— Tonja Harry, 19, discovered on July 9, 1983, partially submerged in a slough that borders West Delta Park.
— Angela Anderson, 14, found on Sept. 22, 1983, in a vacant house on Northeast Going Street.
— Latanga Watts, 29, found on March 18, 1987, in an empty lot near North Concord Avenue and Going Court.
— Lawauna Triplet, 29, found on June 15, 1993, near a pedestrian overpass at North Going Street and Concord Avenue.
Judge rejects ‘What are the odds?’ theory
While prosecutors stressed the similarities of the killings, the defense and a defense expert poked holes in the state’s case that resonated with the judge.
Greenlick made the decision after holding multiple hearings and reviewing more than 1,400 pages of discovery.
Prosecutors pointed to other similarities: Someone had removed the clothing of each woman or adjusted their clothing suggesting sexual assault and that Jackson’s DNA was found either on or near the women’s bodies. There’s also no other known DNA evidence in common among the four crime scenes.
That’s too much of a coincidence under a so-called “what are the odds?’’ theory, they argued.
But the judge found that reasoning faulty.
DNA can remain on a person or clothing for days or weeks and can be transferred from another place or person, Greenlick noted. That DNA was found at a crime scene or on a victim who worked as a prostitute “does not tell us with certainty” that the contributor was there when the woman was killed, he found.
“The Court acknowledges that DNA evidence is often very incriminating. When DNA is found on a murder weapon or from a rape kit where the suspect was a stranger to the victim, such evidence can constitute overwhelming evidence of guilty,’’ Greenlick wrote. “The circumstances in this case are very different from those circumstances.’’
Jackson’s lawyers have pointed to DNA profiles of other men on some of the women’s bodies or their clothes or at the crime scenes.
Police files also revealed that investigators initially suspected other people in several of the cases: Two of those suspects admitted killing two of the women and one suspect got rid of his car shortly after one of the women disappeared, defense lawyers showed. But no one else was ever charged in the killings besides Jackson.
The judge found testimony from defense expert Mark Cunningham was credible, including that the characteristics of the four killings aren’t sufficiently similar or unique to meet the “Mark of Zorro’’ test, suggesting they were the design of any particular person. African American women are overrepresented in the population for sex trafficking and asphyxiation is present in 50 percent of all homicides of prostitutes, Cunningham said.
Other differences that Cunningham, a Seattle-based forensic psychologist and researcher, noted:
One of the victims was a young teenager while the others were adults. Triplet suffered injuries that appeared to be sexual torture. Anderson wasn’t beaten and her wrists were slit after she was killed. Harry suffered trauma to her head but not her face. Watts had trauma to her head, face and body.
A different ligature was used in each killing — a sash cord, a belt, a broken neckless — and none in Harry’s death. She had an apparent ligature mark around her neck but died of drowning.
Two of the women were found near the same location but their killings occurred six years apart. The women all were found in different types of places.
The judge said he won’t allow evidence from one case to be admitted in the trial of another.
“With respect to the state wishing to argue ‘what are the odds’ that his DNA would innocently show up on or near all four victims,” Greenlick said, “the Court concludes that asking this question of a jury is inherently prejudicial and invites jurors to convict based on speculation and conjecture.’’
Bail hearing set
Prosecutors and defense lawyers are set to return Tuesday before the judge for a release hearing for Jackson.
Defense lawyers said Jackson has a history of respiratory disease with only one functioning lung, a history of diabetes and hypertension and is a former smoker.
For more than a week, Jackson was removed from Inverness Jail and spent four or five days in intensive care with a high fever, his lawyers said in court documents.
Prosecutors said he was diagnosed with pneumonia due to influenza.
For a while, Inverness Jail wouldn’t confirm Jackson’s whereabouts and then couldn’t say which hospital he’d been taken to, Jackson’s lawyers told the judge. Once they finally found out from the jail and called to speak to Jackson, the hospital told them that nobody had been admitted under Jackson’s name though he was there, according to his lawyers.
Even back in jail, with contact visits suspended because of coronavirus, it’s nearly impossible to conduct truly confidential attorney-client meetings by phone, his lawyers said. Other inmates and jail deputies can overhear the conversation, they said.
Prosecutors contend Jackson waived his right to a bail hearing in 2016, at least for the first nine counts he faces. They oppose any release, citing the seriousness of the charges and their continued stance that the weight of the evidence, when considered together, is strong against Jackson.
The presence of Jackson’s DNA at the four different crime scenes “cannot reasonably be characterized as coincidence but rather it is overwhelmingly strong circumstantial evidence of the defendant’s identity as their killer,’’ Snowden and Senior Deputy District Attorney Jenna Plank wrote in response.
They also cited other women’s complaints that Jackson assaulted or tried to strangle them in the past, including some cases that led to arrests and charges but were dropped without convictions.
“Defendant is an untreated sex offender who has engaged in a pattern of offending against multiple victims,” the prosecutors wrote.
While they acknowledge Jackson’s health risks, they argued he’s getting the care he needs in custody and that the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office has taken steps to try to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
“Despite these risks, it is the state’s position that currently the defendant is being well cared for in jail and may even have increased access to medical staff and treatment than he would if released,” the prosecutors wrote.
If bail is granted, it should be set at $3.75 million, $250,000 for each of the 15 counts, reflecting “how incredibly serious the charges are,’’ according to Snowden and Plank.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Jackson could face life in prison with a minimum of 30 years in custody up to life in prison without parole.
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at email@example.com; 503-221-8212
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