Lee County justice: the mistrial of Curtis Vance 

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.

 

Even by the standards of Eastern Arkansas, Lee County — of which Marianna is the county seat — is very poor. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.6 percent of the population there lives below the poverty line. In the rest of the state, it's 17.3 percent. Blacks comprise around 56 percent of the population. In the rest of the state, it's just over 15 percent.

Fletcher Long was the prosecutor in the Curtis Vance rape trial in Marianna. He said the DNA evidence speaks for itself, and should have been good enough to get a conviction.

"That matched on 16 points with the swabs taken from the cheek of Vance," Long said. "You either have the person that did it, or if he happens to have a twin brother running around out there somewhere, possibly it's him — an absolute twin."

Though a transcript of the trial has not been produced by the court reporter as of this writing (and probably never will be given that Edwards decided to forgo pursuing another trial in the case), Long said that under cross examination, Vance testified he had admitted to Little Rock police detectives that he'd been in Edwards' house on the morning of the rape, but only because "there were mobs roaming the streets in Little Rock" and he was afraid.

"I don't remember any mobs roaming the streets in Little Rock," Long said, "but perhaps I missed something."

During the trial, the defense — led by Little Rock attorney Bill James, who had represented Vance in the Marianna rape since he was arrested — passed witness after witness without questioning, including asking no questions of any of the DNA examiners brought in from the Arkansas State Crime lab to testify about the collection, handling and testing of the evidence (see sidebar for James' explanation of why).

Even with what seemed to be overwhelming DNA evidence and with Vance's taped statement admitting he'd been in Kristen Edwards' house on the morning of the rape, Fletcher Long said that he told Edwards before the trial even started that the best he could probably do for her was a mistrial.

When we asked why, Long told the story of another Marianna rape trial he was involved in a few years back, a case in which the crime lab found that the chance that the semen collected during the investigation belonged to anyone other than the defendant stood at around 2 trillion to one. That case, Long said, twice ended in a mistrial, the jury split strictly on racial lines, with the blacks for acquittal and the whites for conviction. After the second mistrial in that case with the jury again split strictly on racial lines, the victim decided not to press it any further. Unlike Curtis Vance, that defendant — innocent until proven guilty in a court of law — is walking the streets of Marianna today.

It's only one of the cases in the area, Long said, where a trial involving DNA wound up with "equally bizarre results" broken down on racial lines. "I've seen it in other types of cases," Long said. "Although it gets particularly difficult to deal with in black/white crime, you can have it where it rears its ugly head in black-on-black crime. I don't know of another way to put it other than a distrust of 'The Man' leads the jurors to impose on the prosecution unbearable burdens."

Still, Long doesn't believe that it's some kind of conspiracy by the African-American community. "People don't get together on the front end and say this is what we're going to do," he said. "They don't even get together back in the jury room and say this is what we're going to do. It's an unspoken type of thing. It's got so many different aspects to it, it's like trying to pick up a Rubik's Cube the first time you ever see one and work the puzzle."

Long said that the origins of that kind of thinking might lie with the media. "I think we spend so much time in the news nationwide and local to our state underlining, in the process of saying mea culpa, all the unjust things that have been done to blacks in the past, which creates a psychology of, almost, an 'I'm going to level the score' type thing."

While talking about race is a nervous proposition for any public official — maybe especially so for a white prosecutor who serves an area where the population is majority black — Long said that it's something that needs to be discussed more often. "You get it out on the table and talk about it," Long said. "This happened in this case three or four weeks ago now, but these are not new issues. We have just refused to talk about it because it's not nice to say these things."

Marianna Police Sgt. Carl McCree, who first developed Vance as a suspect in the Edwards rape and the Pressly killing, is a man of few words, but said that he was "shocked" that Vance wasn't convicted in the rape trial, given the evidence against him. Asked why it might have happened, McCree said that people in the Delta can be distrustful of the police. 

"Not everybody is going to like the police. If I arrest somebody's family member committing a crime, everybody has a problem with that. You have very few people who'll say, 'Okay, I know he did it, whatever, hey man I'm upset.' They don't call us until they need us, basically."

McCree testified in the rape trial, and said the evidence was there for a conviction, but can't say why black jurors apparently didn't believe the DNA. Sitting in his cruiser in the street in front of Kristen Edwards' old house on East Mississippi Street, he said that back in 2008 he made sure to tell the LRPD that they should try the Pressly case before the Marianna rape.

"I'm glad we got it done, and that he'll never get back on the street," McCree said. "But I'm glad they tried him over there [in Little Rock] first. I am glad. I told the guys in Little Rock: Be sure you do your case first. When they decided to do it first, I thought, that'd be the best thing."

Johnny Malone Jr. was one of the white jurors in the Kristen Edwards rape trial. Though Arkansas Times attempted several times to reach black jurors in the case for comment, leaving over a dozen messages via phone and Facebook, we received no response.

Malone said that while the deliberations were calm and courteous, it was clear within 15 minutes that they'd never be able to reach a verdict. The jury was divided black/white from virtually the moment the trial ended, he said, but the deliberations were rarely about issues of black and white. The only time race was discussed, Malone said, was when an older white male alternate brought it up, pointing out the fact that the jury had split on racial lines.

"Automatically, the black jurors came up and said, this is not about race," Malone said. "We hadn't discussed it up until that point. Even the white jurors in there told him: It's not really. We haven't been running on racial lines. We've been looking at the evidence that they presented us, and the black jurors have an issue with a lot of the evidence that was presented — whether they didn't understand it or didn't want to understand it."

The larger issue on the table, Malone said, was the DNA evidence. The white jurors all accepted it as evidence of Vance's guilt, while the black jurors seized on the fact that Edwards had never seen her attacker's face. Malone said that he and another juror tried to convince the black members of the jury about the validity of DNA, but they wouldn't budge.

"For a lot of us, it was cut and dried. What a lot of the jurors had trouble with is that she couldn't I.D. him physically — she didn't see him, she couldn't pin him being there. What all of us on the other spectrum of it were trying to explain to them was: once DNA is involved in this, that's the same as seeing that individual."

As the deliberations dragged on, Malone said, several pro-acquittal members of the jury began inventing reasons why the evidence might have been tainted during collection or processing, or why Vance's semen might have been found on Edwards' body — none of which, he contends, was supported by evidence or testimony during the trial.

"You had a lot of people in there saying things like, [Vance and Edwards] were seeing one another," Malone said. "Some of that came up: 'We don't know if they were intimate with one another to begin with.' That came up in the jury. That was conjecture by the jury, the possibility that it could have been consensual. No evidence about that came up in the trial. No witnesses, no testimony to that."

Though Malone said in a phone interview a few weeks after the trial that he believed the jurors who pushed for acquittal had come into the case impartial and willing to convict Vance, by the time we spoke to him face to face in Forrest City just after the beginning of March, he didn't seem so sure. "You've got to look at the evidence and go from there," he said. "That didn't happen. You had people coming up with their own conclusions without any evidence at all."

Standing in the warehouse attached to the electric supply company where he works, Malone frowned and said the low point in the deliberations was when a black juror brought up the fact that Curtis Vance was in prison for life without parole, and they couldn't understand why the prosecution was wasting time trying to convict him again. Malone said it made him sad to have to point out that Kristen Edwards deserved justice. "The sad part about it for me was, it had to be put out there," Malone said. "It was kind of like she was a secondary issue here. ... What was sad was that I had to bring it to the forefront: This lady has just as much rights as anybody else has."

 

Though he doesn't know for sure, Dion Wilson isn't convinced that the mistrial in the Vance case was about race. A prominent black attorney with offices in Helena and Forrest City, Wilson has practiced in the area for 17 years. He said that the mistrial could have been because jurors in Eastern Arkansas are more skeptical of DNA evidence, and tend to be more skeptical when it comes to the police.

Wilson said that in small towns, individual police officers can gain a bad reputation among the black community quickly, for everything from writing traffic tickets to arresting a person's family members. That can come back to haunt prosecutors when those officers take the stand to testify.

"When [blacks] have an encounter with a police officer, it's not always positive," Wilson said. "You can pick out anything about the police officer — the way he wrote the ticket or the way he talked to you, or he didn't give you a warning. A lot of times, in the small communities, you have police officers that everybody knows. Then, if that police officer has done something wrong to somebody in the community, that'll spread ... that negativity gets magnified 10 times, as opposed to a bigger community where you might never see the same police officer twice."

Asked if the lower average levels of education in the area might make it harder for juries in the Delta to understand DNA, Wilson said an attorney has to prepare based on what the knowledge level of the potential jury pool might be.

"You might not have a jury in Eastern Arkansas with seven people on it who have college degrees. But by the same token, you might have people on there who have graduated from high school, who work at jobs at the hospital, or do important things at the prison or who are farmers," he said. "There are different levels of sophistication outside of having a college degree, so you have to tailor your case based upon what your jury pool might be." He added that jurors are often skeptical of DNA because of how it's presented in court.

"When you use terms and words that the juror there didn't understand or didn't relate to, they may not have received it," he said. "People will look to [race] as a scapegoat, but when you review the whole trial, you need to look at: Could I have been more persuasive in this area? Could I have been more persuasive in that area?"

While Wilson said he believes most jurors in Eastern Arkansas really do intend to listen to the evidence impartially, the experience of being a juror is a jarring experience, which can bring up lot of emotion. That can all come to the forefront when it's time to deliberate.

"You go from drinking coffee in the morning and by 6 o'clock that evening, you're deciding whether someone should go to prison for the rest of their life," Wilson said. "That's a big jump, so all sorts of emotions tend to come out. They're not all racial emotions, but they come out because of the situation that you're in now. You're deciding the fate of someone's life."

When we e-mailed her questions about her feelings on the mistrial in her case, the one question Kristen Edwards didn't answer — though she answered almost all the others fully, intelligently, and with the good grammar befitting a long-time school teacher — was whether she was angry about it. At this point, it's hard to argue with the idea that she's got as much right to be angry as just about anybody on earth.

The recipient of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship from NASA, Edwards currently works at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., about as far east from Marianna, Ark., as you can get without falling in the Atlantic Ocean. Edwards said she "absolutely" believes the mistrial in her case was about color. "The jury was presented with incontrovertible DNA evidence — which was collected, transported, processed and verified flawlessly — that proved beyond all scientific certainty that Curtis Lavelle Vance is the man who attacked me," she wrote. "Seven of those jurors either did not understand the evidence that was presented to them, or chose to ignore it and violate the oath they took to uphold justice." Edwards said that she was not surprised by the outcome, and confirmed that Fletcher Long told her before the trial even started that a mistrial was probably the best they could hope for. Even knowing that, she said, she was adamant about having her case brought to trial. What upsets her most about the mistrial, she said, is that no one has been willing to have an intelligent discussion about what really went on in the courtroom and the jury room. "(T)here has been a lot of speculation and mud-slinging, but no one willing to really take a hard look at why verdicts like this continue to happen in the United States," she wrote. "It frightens me to know that juries can completely disregard everything they have heard in the courtroom and hand down verdicts based on their personal beliefs and biases, and that victims can be denied justice simply because they have the misfortune of being attacked in a part of the county where people will consider the color of a victim's (or perpetrator's) skin rather than seeing one human being committing a heinous act of violence against another human being." Edwards wrote that she hopes anyone who questions why her case ended the way it did will try to take "positive, proactive steps" to change things. "Don't hide behind a screen name online and talk trash about Marianna, or engage in derogatory racial talk — nothing good will ever come of that. Engaging in honest, open discussion about the issues at play, and being willing to come to the table to talk about how to fix the obviously broken 'justice' system in the Delta — maybe one day verdicts like the one in my case won't happen anymore." Asked what she'd say to the members of the jury in the case, Edwards said that if the five jurors who voted for conviction did so based on the evidence presented in the courtroom, she thanks them for their honesty and for faithfully discharging their oath. To the seven who voted to acquit, she has harsher words. "I pray," Edwards wrote, "that the seven jurors who voted for acquittal are never treated as unjustly as they have treated me; that they never have a violent crime perpetrated upon them and have a jury violate the oath they took. I also firmly believe that God will one day judge them in a manner consistent with their actions, and His justice is far more permanent than anything that can be handed down by man."

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