Piece by piece over months, attorneys for Donovan Allen picked apart the investigation and testimony that led to his 2002 conviction for killing his mother, Sharon Cox, who was bludgeoned to death in 2000.
Innocence Project Northwest, which is part of the University of Washington Law School, on Nov. 19 submitted a 35-page memorandum in support of its motion for a new trial for Allen. No new trial will be necessary. On Tuesday, Cowlitz County Prosecutor Ryan Jurvakainen dropped charges against Allen, who has been serving a life sentence in the Clallam Bay correctional facility.
Allen’s cousin by adoption, Brian Kitts, has been charged with killing Cox and has a Jan. 25 trial date.
Following are excerpts from the Innocence Project memorandum:
The morning of Cox’ murder
In 2000, Donovan Allen and his fiancée lived at the Bridgegate Apartments, a 32nd Avenue complex managed by Cox and her husband, Gerald. Cox’s sister Cindy Helms worked as the assistant manager and Helm’s adoptive son, Kitts, helped out with maintenance.
Allen was 18 when his mother was killed. He called 9-1-1 to report finding his mother bloody and beaten in her apartment.
Cox was bludgeoned with the butt of a .22 rifle and manually strangled. An autopsy revealed that she was struck at least four times with the butt of the rifle. Someone stole a cash box containing $1,500.
According to the document, Kitts was the last person to see his aunt alive.
However, detectives focused their suspicion on Allen, who denied any involvement in his mother’s death and cooperated with the investigation.
Recent DNA testing conducted by the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory confirms that Allen’s DNA was not on the rifle used to strike Cox or any other items in evidence from the crime scene. However, Kitts’ DNA was found on the rifle and the collar and neck area of her clothing.
“The significant quantity of Brian Kitts’ DNA identified by these test results is consistent with strangulation and cannot be explained by mere casual contact,” the memorandum says.
The kind of DNA testing the Innocence project got for Allen’s case was not available in 2000-2002.
Kitt’s alleged motive and ability to kill
According to the memorandum, Kitts was struggling with drug addiction at the time of Cox’s death and needed money to support his addiction. He didn’t have a steady job and knew about the $1,500 in the cash box.
The memorandum also points out that Kitts was 6 foot 4 and weighed 225 pounds then; Allen, by contrast, was 5 foot 4 and weighed 140 pounds, not much more than his mother.
Kitts gave a series of false and disparaging statements to police and jurors in an effort to incriminate his cousin for the crime. But Kitts’ statements to police were inconsistent.
A key witness against Allen was Kitts, then 26, who “gave false testimony at both trials to support the State’s case against Donovan Allen,” such as telling police that Allen killed his mother to get money for drugs, the document says.
Problems with Allen’s confession
A month after Cox’s death, police arrested Allen on a charge of harassment for allegedly threatening a friend and officers involved in the questioning. Allen was questioned from 10:30 p.m. one day until 6:30 a.m. the next morning, then again from 3:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m., at which point he confessed. The confession “was the product of intense interrogation effort that included a graphic display of gruesome autopsy photos to 19-year-old Allen,” the memorandum says.
Allen suffers from learning and developmental disabilities. According the memorandum, Longview officers’ “intent was to ‘break him down’ and obtain a confession to the crime.”
Donovan’s attorneys quote Steven Drizin of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, who says that Allen’s confession was “highly contaminated.” As a young man with physical and learning disabilities, Allen “was particularly vulnerable to high pressure tactics,” the document states.
The confession was admitted as evidence in both of Allen’s two trials, the first of which resulted in a hung jury. (Longview police did not return calls for comment Wednesday.)
The jailhouse informants
David Eurich testified at both of Allen’s trials that Allen had confessed to him while they shared a cell at the Cowlitz County Jail.
However, Eurich had a significant history of drug addiction and was “only competent when properly medicated.”
Also, Eurich had an incentive to testify against Allen to get lighter sentences for the charges of assault and harassment he was facing. So did Stephen Bott, another inmate who testified that Allen confessed to him. Bott had significant substance abuse and mental health problems.
Allen the 334th person exonerated
When the Innocense Project filed its memorandum, 333 people in the United States had been exonerated from wrongful convictions because of post-DNA testing. According to their calculations, Allen has become the 334th.