LOUISVILLE (AP) — A northern Kentucky inmate serving life in prison for murder has won a bid for DNA testing of evidence in the case after a court ruled that the law creating that right applies to her despite not being in effect at the time of her conviction.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday ruled that the statute passed by lawmakers in 2013 applies to the case of 54-year-old Deborah Huiett, who a jury convicted in 2005 of killing a woman in a love triangle dispute.
Chief Judge Glenn Acree wrote for the court that unless the state Supreme Court decides otherwise, legal precedents dictate that the new law applies to old cases.
Huiett and her then-boyfriend, 52-year-old Leonard William Day, were convicted of slaying Tina Rae Stevens, who disappeared from a hotel near Burlington, Ky., in the southern suburbs of Cincinnati. Stevens’ remains were found in April 2000 in a remote section of Boone County.
Day is serving 50 years in prison.
Kentucky’s original DNA testing law only allowed access to inmates sentenced to death. Because Huiett received a life sentence, she remained ineligible to force testing on hairs found with Steven’s body. Lawmakers in 2013 altered the law to encompass testing for anyone convicted of a violent felony. But, the law remained silent on whether the statute applied retroactively to people convicted before its adoption.
The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly declined to say people have a substantive right to post-conviction DNA testing and opting to let state lawmakers to develop laws governing such tests.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals, Acree wrote, inadvertently extended the retroactive reach of a law in an unrelated case in violation of Kentucky Supreme Court rules that allowed only the high court to take such a step.
But, because no one appealed the ruling in that case, the appeals court is bound by its prior decision making new laws retroactive, Acree wrote. Now, it is up to the Kentucky Supreme Court to set the law straight if it so chooses with this case, Acree wrote.
“Although the vast majority of cases decided by this Court do not receive further appellate review, this is not the court of last resort in Kentucky, Acree wrote.
Day and his employer, Robert Walker of North Carolina, went to Boone County, Ky., in May 1999 for an extended job installing fiber optic cable. The men rented separate hotel rooms so Walker’s wife and Huiett could accompany the men.
While in northern Kentucky, Walker met Stevens, Day’s former girlfriend, at a local bar. Walker took her to the motel, where she and Day rented an additional room. The next morning, Huiett contacted Walker and asked about Day’s whereabouts.
A week later, Day called Walker, who had returned to North Carolina, and told him the hotel kicked him out for fighting with Huiett. Hotel employees found the room Huiett and Day shared had been trashed, with broken glass and furniture tossed everywhere. The employees also noted that the walls in the room Day and Stevens shared had been sprayed with either bleach or water and the sheets on the bed did not belong to the hotel.
Stevens wasn’t seen alive again. Police investigated several leads for two years before focusing on Day and Huiett.
Boone County Det. Todd Kenner investigated Stevens’ disappearance and slaying and initially focused on an ex-boyfriend. During the investigation, Kenner theorized that Huiett killed Stevens in a fit of jealousy because she thought Day and the woman were having an affair.
“Acquaintances characterized Huiett as extremely possessive of Day; she threatened other romantic rivals and was also known to carry a knife,” Acree said.
When Kenner arrested Huiett at her workplace in April 2002, police say she “told her employer she was being arrested for killing that bitch.”