New Trial in St. Clair County

In an April 15, 2016, Opinion and Order on Remand [from the Court of Appeals], St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael L. West granted a new trial in People v. Higley-Zuehlke. Ms. Higley-Zuehlke had been convicted of second-degree murder, lying to a police officer, tampering with evidence and concealing a death.  The primary issue at the evidentiary hearing was the impact and effect of newly-discovered DNA evidence.

A meat thermometer found at the murder-scene, and potentially one of the instruments used to kill the deceased, was tested for DNA evidence and yielded a mixture from two donors.  The primary donor was the victim; the identity of the second donor was, at the time, unknown.  The defendant was excluded as a donor.  About one year after the defendant was convicted, the State Police identified the secondary donor as a person who had been a suspect early on in the investigation.  The investigating officers did not request a DNA sample from that suspect at the time.

At trial, the prosecution evidence and argument suggested that that suspect/witness’ DNA was in the CODIS database, and, since there was no CODIS “hit,” then there was no match to the suspect’s DNA.  The suspect’s girlfriend also, perhaps inadvertently, mentioned at trial that the suspect had passed a polygraph test; a mistrial was denied at the time.

Judge West found that there was “no reliable evidence” to draw the conclusion that the suspect’s DNA was in the database, and, if the jury believed the DNA was in the database – as had been suggested by the suspect/witness and the prosecution, then “the verdict was flawed and lacks confidence, making a different result probable on retrial.”  Additionally, Judge West found that the new DNA evidence, which linked the suspect/witness to the scene, would give more significance to the suspect/witness’ “history of assaultive and threatening behavior, drug activity, and presence” in the victim’s home at a time consistent with the victim’s death, increased the probability of a different result on retrial.  Judge West found there was no direct evidence linking the defendant to the homicide.  There was, however, testimony from two jail-inmates who testified about incriminating statements allegedly made to them by the defendant.  Judge West found that there were reasonable challenges to the credibility of those jail-witnesses, who may have had access to the defendant’s discovery materials when the defendant was not present in the cell.

Judge West found a different result on retrial would be likely where the defense would likely present a different defense strategy given the new evidence.

Ms. Higley-Zuehlke was represented by MAACS Roster Attorney Michael A. Faraone.  Mr. Faraone was assisted by Katherine Marcuz and Andrew Lee of the MAACS Appellate Investigation Project.

A copy of the opinion in People v. Higley-Zuehlke, St. Clair County Circuit Court No. 14-000467-FH, is available here: 95_People-v_-Higley-Zuehlke.pdf

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor