Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Legal News / State justices asked to review case that could affect DNA testing standard

State justices asked to review case that could affect DNA testing standard

Charles Hennings

Charles Hennings

The state Court of Appeals is seeking Wisconsin Supreme Court review of a case involving DNA evidence that could clear a man who was sentenced to prison in 2000.

In a certification issued Thursday, appeals court judges noted the case could have broader implications. They ask the higher court to look at the standard by which a judge can order DNA evidence to be tested after a defendant has been convicted.

The case stems from the February 2000 murder conviction of Charles Hennings, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence for the May 11, 1999, shooting death of Patrick Nash at 20th and Hadley streets in Milwaukee.

Hennings, 35, was convicted of felony murder despite, according to his most recent appeal, the police’s investigation only focusing on him because “the victim’s mother heard a rumor that identified the shooter as ‘Shorty,’ a nickname Hennings also used.”

Hennings is locked up at a prison in Boscobel, said his mother, Frances Hennings. He has appealed his case three previous times with no success. The Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin is now handling his case.

The most recent appeal comes after Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Richard Sankovitz denied a motion to have the state’s Crime Laboratory Bureau use public money to test evidence collected at the scene of the shooting. Instead, Sankovitz ordered the evidence be made available to the Wisconsin Innocence Project after it expressed a willingness to pay for the testing.

Lindsey Smith, the Innocence Project’s intake specialist, declined to comment on the case Friday, saying the staff hasn’t ”had a chance to discuss it together or talk to our client about it.”

The statute that governs post-conviction testing of DNA evidence says “it is reasonably probable that the movant would not have been prosecuted … [or] convicted … for the offense at issue … if exculpatory [DNA] testing results had been available …”

Tricia Bushnell, Hennings’ attorney, argued in the appeal that the statute should be interpreted broadly because of the “plain language” with which it was written.

The statute that governs post-conviction testing of DNA evidence says “it is reasonably probable that the movant would not have been prosecuted … [or] convicted … for the offense at issue … if exculpatory [DNA] testing results had been available …”

In her appeal, Bushnell argued that the statute should be interpreted broadly because of the “plain language” with which it was written.

“The court’s finding of ‘superfluity’ relies on the phrase ‘exculpatory results’ being synonymous with ‘acquittal’ or ‘nonprosecution,’” she wrote. “However, such an interpretation was [an] error.”

But prosecutors and Sankovitz disagreed, according to the certification, saying a broad interpretation of this law could “impose an intolerable burden on law enforcement agencies and the state crime lab” if more defendants file similar motions.

The appellate court wrote that they understand prosecutors’ arguments that a broad interpretation “could not have been intended by the Legislature.” But the certification noted the judges could not “discern whether such absurd results will follow from Hennings’ construction of the statute.”

Frances Hennings, 60, said she thinks her son didn’t kill anybody, and hopes the DNA test “will end up proving he’s not guilty.”

It has been hard, she said, to see her youngest child have his appeals denied several times over 13 years; it’s been hard for him too.

“It gets to me sometimes,” Frances Hennings said. “I’m asthmatic, so sometimes some of the stuff he goes through, I go through. It bothers him a lot.”

A message left with the state Department of Justice, which oversees the Crime Laboratory Bureau, was not immediately returned Friday.

— Follow Eric on Twitter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*