Thursday, May 29, 2008

Death-row inmate pins hope on Texas lab

By Jamal Thalji, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, May 28, 2008 8:47 PM

NEW PORT RICHEY — In December, death-row inmate Samuel Jason Derrick won the right to have evidence in his 1988 murder conviction tested for DNA.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that has used DNA testing to exonerate and free dozens from death row, hopes to do the same for Derrick.

But first the clinic had to find someone to actually do the tests.

This month, the Innocence Project finally lined up a lab and got the judge's blessing to ship the evidence from the 1987 stabbing of a Moon Lake store owner.

Circuit Judge Stanley Mills agreed last year to DNA testing of evidence — a partly eaten hot dog, blood found under a picnic table and scrapings from the victim's fingernails — with one caveat:
"Initially the judge wanted a Florida lab," said Innocence Project attorney Alba Morales.

That was five months ago. Morales told the St. Petersburg Times the Innocence Project couldn't find a lab in Florida that could meet the defense's most important criteria: be able to perform certain cutting-edge DNA tests and enter the test results into the FBI database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

But a lab in Dallas, Orchid Cellmark, can do all the things the judge and defense want done, Morales said. At a May 13 hearing, all sides agreed to ship the evidence to Texas.

The order is still being drafted, but once it's done, the evidence will be sent via Federal Express from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. The Innocence Project is footing the bill for the tests, which could cost thousands of dollars.

Then the real wait will begin. It will take months before the test results are known — assuming there's anything left that can still be tested.

Derrick was 20 when he was arrested for the 1987 murder of 55-year-old storekeeper Rama Sharma. The victim was found slashed and stabbed to death in his blood-soaked Moon Lake store. Missing was $360.

Detectives said that Derrick broke down during an interview and confessed: "All right, I did it."

But in 2007, Derrick recanted, saying a detective coerced him into a false confession by threatening to put his infant son in foster care.

Derrick said he had been abused in foster care. Now 41, he has spent more than half his life behind bars, on death row.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at or (727) 869-6236.

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