OMAHA, Nebraska — A man convicted of rape nearly four decades ago should be allowed to seek new DNA testing, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday, upholding an earlier Nebraska Court of Appeals ruling.
Juneal Pratt, 58, is serving 32 to 90 years for the rape, sexual assault and robbery of two Iowa sisters at an Omaha motel in 1975.
He was 19 when he was arrested days after the August 1975 assaults on suspicion of purse-snatching at the same hotel, then quickly charged with the rapes. Several witnesses said Pratt was at home at the time of the attacks, but Pratt was convicted just two months later after the sisters picked him out of a police lineup — a practice that's increasingly under fire.
Faulty witness identifications played a role in more than 75 percent of people in the U.S. who have been exonerated by DNA testing, according to the New York-based Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongly convicted people.
Pratt has maintained his innocence and has sought DNA testing of evidence in the case since Nebraska enacted a law in 2001 requiring the state to do as much.
In 2011, Pratt asked a Douglas County District judge to allow testing on the victims' clothes, but it was denied, as the judge said the clothes were not stored in a way that preserved their integrity and may have been contaminated by those who handled them.
Last year, the Nebraska Court of Appeals overruled the district judge, citing testimony from a DNA expert for Pratt who said new tests can determine the biological source of DNA material, such as skin cells or semen. Pratt contended that if the new testing detects the presence of a DNA sample consisting solely of semen, then cross-contamination from jurors or lawyers could be ruled out and it could be tested to exclude him as the rapist.
On Friday, the state's high court upheld the Court of Appeals ruling, saying state law has declared that "DNA testing responds to serious concerns regarding wrongful convictions, especially those arising out of mistaken eyewitness identification testimony."
Chief Justice Michael Heavican dissented, saying he could not find the district court erred in finding the clothing had not been maintained in a way that would safeguard the integrity of DNA evidence.
Lawyers for Pratt lauded the majority opinion.
"It's tragic that Mr. Pratt has had to fight so long for access to this testing, but this decision sends a very clear message that DNA testing should be granted when it might prove the answer to guilt," said attorney Tracy Hightower-Henne, who is also executive director of the Nebraska Innocence Project.
The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Pratt's case arguing for the new DNA testing, also praised the ruling.
A message left Friday for Nebraska Attorney General's Office seeking comment was not immediately returned.