A little before 1:00 AM on March 20, 1982, a man broke into a 20-year-old woman’s apartment in Norman, Oklahoma. The woman was in bed when she heard a thump. About 10 minutes later, she got up to go to the bathroom. Her apartment was dark except for a dim light from another room and natural light coming in the windows.
On her way to the bathroom, she saw the dim figure of a man in her den. She called out her boyfriend's name, but there was no response and the man disappeared. The woman then turned on a light and the man came around the corner and grabbed her, pushed her down the hall, turned off the hall light, and forced her face down on the bathroom rug, telling her to be quiet. The man forced his penis into her mouth and then sexually assaulted her. He then pushed her into the den and ransacked her purse. Eventually, he asked the victim to unlock the front door and he left. She called in her dog, turned on the lights, and put on her robe and then telephoned her boyfriend. Her boyfriend arrived and notified the police.
The victim identified 22-year-old Thomas Webb III from a photo line-up. She was originally shown a group of six black-and-white photographs but was unable to pick her assailant with certainty.
A new line-up was constructed at her request, this one containing six color photographs. Two of the pictures in this line-up were of people who were in the first line-up, a procedure that has since been shown to be suggestive and result in mistaken identifications. One photo was of Webb and the other was of a man who did not fit the victim’s initial description.
Webb went on trial in 1983. A criminalist testified that two scalp hairs and one pubic hair found at the scene were consistent with hair samples from Webb. Because there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, an analyst’s assertion that hairs are consistent or similar is inherently prejudicial and has little scientific value.
The defense attacked the photo line-up as overly suggestive and argued that as a result, the victim’s identification of Webb in court was tainted. The defense also contended that the identification was suspect because the apartment was too dark to identify the attacker.
In 1983, Webb was convicted of rape and robbery. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In 1996, years after his appeals were rejected, Webb gained access to the biological evidence. DNA testing was conducted and the results excluded Webb as the rapist. He was granted a new trial, the charges were dismissed and he was released.
In 2002, the unidentified DNA profile from the rape kit was entered into the FBI’s national DNA database for unsolved crimes.
In 2006, Gilbert Duane Harris was arrested by Louisiana law enforcement and police there uploaded his DNA profile to the database and it was matched to the profile from the Norman case. Although Louisiana authorities notified the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the report was forwarded to the Cleveland County District Attorney’s office, nothing was done until 2013 when Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit investigative media organization began researching the case.
As a result of that investigation, Norman police re-opened their investigation and in July 2014, Harris was charged with rape and sodomy. In May 2015, a judge dismissed the charges because the statute of limitations had expired in 1985 and Harris was released.
– Maurice Possley