A convicted killer asked a judge on Thursday to order DNA testing on 16-year-old evidence that he hopes will prove he is factually innocent of a man's murder.
Jimmy Dean Meinhard, who is serving up to life in prison, believes that a fingerprint on the door of the car in which 38-year-old Ronald Reed Peterson was stabbed to death in 1997, as well as DNA found beneath the victim's fingernails, may poke holes in the state's case that he was, indeed, the killer.
"There was a violent struggle and the victim had defensive wounds on his hands," said Meinhard's attorney Jensie Anderson. "If Mr. Peterson used his hands to fend off an attack, it's certainly possible that he scratched his attacker and retained the perpetrator's DNA under his fingernails."
Third District Judge Lee A. Dever took the matter under advisement Thursday and said he would issue a written ruling at a later time. It could take weeks, or even months, for the judge to reach a decision.
Meinhard, now 68, was convicted in 1999 of murder and evidence tampering for which he was sentenced to serve up to life at the Utah State Prison.
The Utah Attorney General's Office challenged Meinhard, arguing that DNA tests are unnecessary in this case given the amount of other evidence presented at trial.
"There is no point in testing the DNA and no other evidence that prove those cells may belong to the killer," said Assistant AG Andrew Peterson, who is not related to the victim. "Mr. Meinhard confessed. He enlisted help to get rid of the evidence. He was seen driving to and from the execution site [in Tooele County]."
Peterson noted that DNA tests only reveal to whom the DNA belonged, not how it got there or how long it had been preserved under the victim's fingernails. He said it wouldn't show anything except that the victim interacted with the people whose DNA may be discovered.
"Even if someone else's DNA shows up, so what?" Andrew Peterson said. "It doesn't prove someone else was the killer. The victim could have been arm wrestling or fighting or having sex with someone earlier that day whose DNA is likely to show up with further testing."
Meinhard was seen fighting with Peterson on Feb. 25, 1997 the day the Kearns resident was killed.
Shortly after the scuffle, witnesses saw Meinhard climb into the victim's car. Later that night, Meinhard admitted to killing Peterson inside the car, and he was covered in blood, a witness said.
The same man testified that he helped Meinhard use latex gloves and bleach to wipe down the victim's car, ridding it of blood and evidence.
According to testimony, Meinhard also told several others he stabbed Peterson to death and investigators found other physical evidence linking Meinhard to the slaying, including a solitary set of footprints in the snow that matched Meinhard's shoe size and gait.
At the time of the murder, DNA tests were run on the car and the victim's fingernails, but the only DNA found belonged to the victim himself.
Meinhard's petition for further testing hinges on advancements in DNA technology.
The Utah State Prison inmate has maintained his innocence and insists the tests will show that the witness who helped him clean the car and dispose of evidence was actually the person who killed Peterson 16 years ago.
"I understand the jury believed he was guilty, but in every exoneration there is a finding of guilt," Anderson said. "In every exoneration there are bad facts."
The judge seemed skeptical of this argument throughout the hearing and continued to ask Anderson to explain how the tests could prove factual innocence.
After the hearing, prosecutor Peterson said he felt confident the judge would deny Meinhard's request.
"The judge didn't understand how DNA testing in this case had the potential to prove factual innocence," Peterson said. "That is exactly our argument."
If the judge denies Meinhard's request, Anderson said they would file an appeal.
"The law for DNA testing was written such that [state authorities] should err on the side of caution, on the side of testing," Anderson said.
Should the judge allow the DNA testing to go forward, it is only step one of the factual innocence process. Depending on whether the DNA turns out to be Meinhard's or someone else's, his defense attorney would then have to accumulate more evidence and argue that there is enough to prove him factually innocent.