James L. Owens

On August 2, 1987, Colleen Williar, 24, a phone company worker and community college student, was beaten, stabbed and strangled in the upstairs bedroom of her southeast Baltimore row house.
 
She was found nude in bed with a sock tied around her neck. A jewelry box and jewelry were missing. Police said she appeared to have been raped.
 
The following day, after police offered a $1,000 reward for information in the case, James Thompson Jr. came forward with a switchblade knife that he said he found, along with a pair of blood-stained cutoffs he said he was wearing when he found it. When police treated him as a suspect, Thompson said it came from his neighbor, 22-year-old James L. Owens. Police arrested Owens and charged him with murder, rape, and burglary.
 
At Owens’ trial in 1988, Thompson was called as a witness and testified that Owens had committed the crime. A jailhouse snitch also testified that Owens confessed to the crime after he was arrested. During the trial, the prosecution became suspicious that Thompson actually was involved in the crime and recalled him to the witness stand.
 
In his second appearance as a witness, Thompson changed his account, and said that he and Owens had broken into the home only to commit a burglary, but found Williar  there. He said that he masturbated while Owens raped and murdered the woman.
 
Owens was convicted of murder and burglary, but acquitted of the rape. He was sentenced to life in prison.
 
Although Thompson recanted his testimony almost immediately, he was charged with murder, rape, burglary and a weapons offense. During his trial, prosecutors said a pubic hair found at the scene was a “match” to Thompson and that his blue jeans were stained with the victim’s blood. He was convicted of all charges and sentenced to life in prison.
 
The men lost their appeals, but in 2004, defense attorneys for Owen filed a post-conviction petition seeking DNA testing of an unanalyzed sperm sample collected from the victim’s body. 
 
In late 2005, a judge granted the petition and ordered the testing. In September, 2006, the test results excluded Thompson and Owens as the source of the sperm. Testing on the bloodstained cutoff jeans showed it was male blood.
 
On May 24, 2007, Owens was granted a new trial on a joint motion by Owens’ attorney and the prosecution. The charges were dismissed on October 15, 2008 and Owens, 43, was released immediately from prison.
 
Thompson’s attorneys petitioned for DNA testing, but the trial court refused to grant the request. In 2009, the Maryland Court of Appeals ordered the tests to be conducted.
 
After further tests excluded Thompson, he was granted a new trial. In July 2010, Thompson, 51, pleaded no contest to second degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, suspending all but the 22 years that he had already served. Thompson was then released.
 
In October, 2011, Owens filed a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore, the State’s Attorney’s Office and police, alleging that evidence was withheld and fabricated and perjured testimony was presented at his trial.
 
The lawsuit alleged that Owens’ boss told the prosecution that Owens was at work at the time of the crime, but the information was not passed on to the defense. The suit alleged that the prosecution also withheld evidence that a jailhouse snitch had written 11 letters to the prosecution seeking either better conditions or his release—evidence that could have been used as impeachment.
 
Maurice Possley
 

Report an error or add more information about this case.

 

State:Maryland
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1988
Exonerated:2008
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age:22
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*