In 1989, Drew Whitley was convicted of the murder of a McDonald’s night manager in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. On May 1, 2006, Drew Whitley was exonerated after post-conviction DNA testing proved that he was not the man who wore the mask used by the perpetrator to conceal his face from eyewitnesses.
On August 17, 1988, at around 3:00 AM, a 22-year-old McDonald’s night manager in Duquesne was finishing her shift when she was confronted by a man with a nylon mask over his face demanding money. The assailant chased her to her car, pistol-whipped her, and shot her in the back. He then fled across the parking lot toward a wooded area, shedding his nylon mask, hat, and women’s trench coat as he ran.
Another McDonald’s employee lived in the building next to Drew Whitley, 32 years old at the time and had been waiting outside of the restaurant to start his 3:00 AM shift. While he was waiting, a man wearing a nylon mask, a hat, and trench coat approached him from behind and told him not to move. He then saw the robber fire a shot in the air, struggle with the victim, and shoot her. As the perpetrator ran into the parking lot, his hat fell off and Whitley’s neighbor recognized the man as Whitley. The witness admitted that he could not see the perpetrator’s face clearly, but he recognized Whitley by his voice, the shape of his head, and the way that he walked.
At trial, another witness testified that he saw the perpetrator fire a warning shot and hit the victim with a gun. This witness then drove to a nearby supermarket to telephone the police. Another McDonald’s employee saw the perpetrator order the victim to give him a bag of money, fire a shot into the air, and chase the victim around her car. He described the perpetrator as a man wearing a trench coat and a hat and subsequently identified Whitley in court. A third employee attempted to help the victim get away from the perpetrator but was unable to identify Whitley.
Further, a death row inmate testified at trial that Whitley confessed while they were incarcerated together at the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh.
The Biological Evidence
The police collected a trench coat, hat, and a 12-inch long nylon stocking from the parking lot. At trial, an Allegheny County Crime Laboratory technician testified that tiny hairs in the mask were similar to Whitley’s hairs, but could not be certain they were his. The technician also testified that saliva from the mask did not match Whitley’s. The prosecutor, however, argued in his closing arguments that the hairs were positively Whitley’s.
Police also collected Whitley’s tennis shoes, which had a drop of blood on them. Whitley told police that his son had bled on his shoes the day before. When serology testing was performed, the blood was found to be type A. Both the victim and Whitley’s son had type A blood.
Based on this evidence and the identifications, Whitley was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In November 1995, the court approved Whitley’s motion for DNA testing, specifically on two rooted hairs from the mask, the blood on Whitley’s shoes, and the blood on the coat found at the crime scene. The prosecution reported that Cellmark Laboratories had attempted to conduct DNA testing on the rooted hairs in 1993 and had consumed the sample. This testing yielded inconclusive results. The prosecution also reported that the 39 hairs without roots and the tennis shoes from Whitley’s case had been lost in a flood of the Allegheny County Police Evidence Room. DNA testing was, however, conducted on the blood on the coat found near the scene. It was consistent with the victim, with the profile being found in 1 in 30,000 Caucasian individuals.
Whitley continued to seek further DNA testing in his case. In 2005, his attorney, Scott Coffey, was informed by the prosecution that the 39 hairs without roots did, in fact, still exist. Coffey then filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition on Whitley’s behalf to have the hairs tested. Mitochondrial DNA testing was then ordered by the court.
On February 28, 2006, Mitotyping Technologies completed DNA testing on 6 representative hairs, of the 39 non-rooted hairs that were suitable for testing, found in the stocking mask. They determined that Whitley was excluded from all of the hairs. The prosecution then decided to send five hairs found in the hat to the lab for testing. Whitley was again excluded as a source of these hairs.
On May 1, 2006, the prosecution dropped all charges against Drew Whitley and he was released from prison. The Innocence Institute of Point Park University worked on Drew Whitley’s case for five years. To find out more about this case and their work, please visit The Innocence Institute of Point Park University.