It would be a nightmare for any woman — for any human being.
On the morning of April 21, 2008, Kristen Edwards got up and started getting ready for school. A native of Maine, she'd been a science teacher at Lee High School in Marianna for seven years, assigned there by the Teach for America program, which places eager young educators in under-performing schools. After getting out of the shower and putting on her bathrobe, Edwards was walking through the yellow house where she lived alone at 87 E. Mississippi St. in Marianna when a stranger grabbed her from behind.
The attacker told her he had a gun; that he "knew her house," and would kill her if she looked at him. Pushed face down on a nearby couch, she was raped in her own living room. After locking Edwards onto an enclosed back porch, the man fled with her cell phone and charger, a video and $3 — the only cash she had. Edwards never saw his face.
Seven months later, the DNA taken from Edwards' robe and body during a rape examination at a local hospital was processed at the Arkansas State Crime Lab. It turned out to be the break a lot of people a hundred miles away from Marianna had been looking for: a clear match for DNA evidence found in the home of KATV television anchor Anne Pressly, who had been raped and brutally beaten in her Little Rock home on Oct. 20, 2008, dying from her injuries five days later.
Though police now had a DNA profile linked to both the Pressly case and a rape in Marianna, the sample didn't match anyone in the system. Acting on a hunch, Marianna police detectives focused on a small-time burglar from town named Curtis Lavelle Vance. His cheeks were swabbed by investigators, and within days the news came back: Vance's DNA matched the genetic evidence collected in both the Marianna case and at the Pressly crime scene. Vance was arrested in Little Rock on Nov. 26, 2008. The DNA evidence against him was a key factor in Vance's eventual conviction in the Pressly case. Spared the death penalty by only two jurors who held out against capital punishment, he now sits in prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Given how good the DNA evidence is in the Marianna rape, how much of a slam dunk it seems — 16 out of 16 genetic markers, evidence that would be the high-five moment on any "CSI"-style police procedural show worth its salt — not to mention the fact that Vance took the stand in the rape trial and testified that he had, in fact, told Little Rock detectives in a taped confession that he was in Edwards' house on the morning of the rape, it was confusing for a lot of people when on Feb. 3, a jury in Marianna decided they couldn't reach a verdict. The case was declared a mistrial.
The jury split seven to five along strictly racial lines — seven blacks and five whites. Even though it would be hard to find a genetics expert in the world who would tell you there was more than an unfathomably remote chance that the semen found inside the victim belonged to anyone other than Curtis Vance, the fact of the matter is this: All the white members of the jury were apparently swayed by that evidence, while all the black jurors were not.
While some we talked to say that the reason for that could be everything from a community-wide distrust of police to a simple lack of understanding among the potential jury pool when it comes to DNA, others — including the victim — contend that the case was decided on a factor that has nothing to do with evidence: the race of Curtis Vance.
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