Court to issue opinion on possible DNA testing in decades-old Juneau homicide

Manny Tells, left, and Newton Lambert stand as Judge Pegease (SP?) enters the court. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

After four years, convicted murderer Newton Lambert of Juneau may finally get an answer about whether he will get a DNA test in his case.

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The Alaska Court of Appeals in October heard arguments in the Lambert case that may have been one of the first applications of a 2010 law that allows for post-conviction DNA testing. The appeal stemmed from consideration of the case by a Ketchikan Superior Court judge four years ago. An opinion in the case is pending.

During oral arguments, the panel’s three judges seemed to doubt that DNA analysis of two potential evidence samples would necessarily lead to establishing Lambert’s possible innocence in the 1982 murder of Anne Benolken.

Michael Schwaiger of the Public Defender Agency argued for Lambert before the appeals court. Schwaiger said the DNA test could generate an important investigative lead that could help track down another suspect who may be listed under a nationwide DNA database called CODIS, or the Combined DNA Index System.

Two key pieces of evidence from the Lambert case were last reported still in storage in a California laboratory. They are identified as sweatshirt and pant swatches taken from the clothing of Anne’s husband, James Benolken, that apparently contain traces of blood and semen. Lambert was convicted by a jury in the April 1982 murder of Anne, but he was acquitted in James’ murder.

In this exchange with Schwaiger, Judge Marjorie Allard tries to summarize Lambert’s current claim before the potential filing of another application for post-conviction relief or PCR.

“Semen’s on this guy’s pants. This could only come from the perpetrator,” Allard said. “If we test the semen on the pants and it turns out to be Lambert, so be it. But we’ll run it through CODIS and we might get a hit off of CODIS. That would lead to additional investigation, and we would be able to talk to that person who there is a hit off of. See if they confess, see if there’s connections between that person and Lambert. Or, if we can establish if there’s no such connections. And then proceed with the PCR.”

“Thank you, yes,” Schwaiger said. “So, this is the initial subsequent step. This is not walking Mr. Lambert out of jail. This is not an extraordinary remedy. This is a very, very ordinary… I don’t know what the opposite of extraordinary… This is a very, very small remedy. We’re just asking for the test.”

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Burke of the Office of Criminal Appeals argued against granting the current application for post-conviction relief. Burke didn’t think that Lambert adequately established his claim of innocence, which she argued is required before any DNA testing of evidence.

“It’s really hard for the state to assess his claims,” Burke said. “While this court might be familiar with this case outside of the actual record in this case, a defendant is supposed to cite to actual evidence in the record to support his claims and he didn’t do that here.”

One of Lambert’s earlier post-conviction attorneys earlier argued that he did not have to prove, only present a reasonable probability that Lambert did not commit the offense.

Lambert is currently serving a 99-year sentence for the murder of Anne Benolken.

Other evidence found at the scene of the crime included a hair found between Anne Benolken’s legs. FBI agent Michael Malone had asserted at trial the hair was likely from Lambert, but he was later discredited.

Co-defendant Emanuel Telles, who was arrested along with Lambert, was later acquitted at trial of murdering both of the Benolkens.

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Matt Miller is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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