October 11, 1997 in City

Buckner Loses On Court Reversal Genetic Evidence Ok After All; No New Trial In Murder-Rape

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Murderer-rapist Curtis Buckner will not get a new trial on grounds that he was improperly convicted here in 1989 with the first use of genetic evidence in a Washington court.

The state Supreme Court has reversed its earlier ruling that Buckner was entitled to a new trial because of the DNA evidence that linked his gene pattern to semen taken from Chewelah-area murder victim Cynthia Ferguson’s body.

Unique or nearly unique genetic patterns in body fluids can be used much like fingerprints to identify suspects, but forensic use of genetic science was in its infancy when Buckner was tried.

Genetic experts testified there was only one chance in 19 billion that the semen sample could have come from anyone but Buckner. That amounted to an impermissible assertion that the sample definitely came from Buckner because there are far fewer than 19 billion people on Earth, the Supreme Court ruled initially.

Now, though, scientists agree that DNA testing is accurate enough to justify astronomical odds such as those cited in the Buckner case, the court said in its recent decision to reverse itself.

Experts are entitled to state an opinion that a DNA match is exact when the odds of another person having the same gene pattern are “exceedingly small,” the court said. Such testimony is still subject to rebuttal by other experts and the jury’s willingness to believe, the justices noted.

However, the high court upheld a Court of Appeals ruling that Buckner must be resentenced. The three-judge appellate court said Stevens County Superior Court Judge Larry Kristianson improperly padded Buckner’s sentence to take away prison good-time credits before he could earn them.

Buckner continues to serve his 80-year sentence while a resentencing hearing is scheduled.

The Court of Appeals said Kristianson properly identified some of the elements necessary for a sentence longer than the standard range of 24 to 32 years. For example, stabbing the victim 15 times constituted deliberate cruelty.

But the court said Kristianson didn’t cite adequate evidence that Buckner constituted a future danger as a sex offender despite increasing violence in his previous 12 felonies. In one case prosecutor Jerry Wetle cited, an assault victim lived only because bone fragments from her hammer-shattered skull stemmed the flow of blood.

The appellate court said, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Kristianson didn’t find evidence that Buckner wouldn’t be rehabilitated by sex-offender treatment. Nor did Kristianson find adequate evidence of previous sexual deviancy.

The culminating flaw, according to the Court of Appeals, was Kristianson’s consideration of potential good-time credits as he calculated a sentence that would keep Buckner behind bars until he was 75.

“I note that, with your age and with one-third off for good behavior, a sentence of 80 years in the Washington state correction system will accomplish this end,” Kristianson told Buckner as he passed sentence.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

THE RULING

DNA testing is accurate enough to justify astronomical odds such as those cited in the Buckner case, the court said.

But such testimony is still subject to rebuttal by other experts and the jury’s willingness to believe, the justices noted.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE RULING DNA testing is accurate enough to justify astronomical odds such as those cited in the Buckner case, the court said. But such testimony is still subject to rebuttal by other experts and the jury’s willingness to believe, the justices noted.


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