ACCOMACK Co., Va. (Delmarva Now) -- An Exmore man who has been serving time in prison since 2006 for the murder of his wife wants DNA testing done in hope it will exonerate him of the crime.
Umah Owens appeared for a hearing before Judge W. Revell Lewis III in Northampton County Circuit Court via closed circuit television from prison, where he is serving a 38-year sentence.
Owens was sentenced in 2007 to 35 years in prison for first-degree murder of his wife, Tara, in August 2005 and another three years for the use of a firearm in commission of a felony, according to a Virginia Courts case search.
At the hearing on Nov. 6, Owens told the court he had learned from a program on television last summer that new methods of DNA testing had been developed since his sentencing.
At the time, testing of this case’s biological samples showed only that the DNA found under the victim’s fingernail belonged to a male, the court heard.
Defense attorney Tucker Watson argued that newer DNA testing could positively show whether the DNA material came from Owens or from another man.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Bruce Jones, who originally prosecuted the case, said the overwhelming evidence of guilt at Owen’s trial would not have changed the verdict even if it had been shown that there was DNA belonging to another man under her fingernail.
He noted that the woman had a boyfriend and could have been with him earlier that day.
Forensic scientist and an expert in DNA analysis, Ann Pollard, testified at length about the nature of DNA and the types of testing that could be done on the samples,
She said the DNA in a sample could last a long time "if properly conserved.”
Watson suggested that another man might be guilty of the crime.
“What if there was another suspect and it was his DNA?” he asked.
Watson suggested in court that a man who testified at the trial he drove Owens to the apartment of his estranged wife the night she was killed could be a suspect.
“He was interrogated seven or eight hours. What if it was his DNA,” Watson asked.
Jones said the defendant was immediately a suspect because he had a protective order against him and because he threatened the victim.
He said the man who drove Owens to the apartment of his estranged wife was not a suspect in the case.
“There was never any suggestion he killed this lady,” he told the court.
“She had a lover,” he said of the victim. “She could have gotten it from him. It is literally not possible that someone else’s DNA would prove the defendant is innocent.”
Jones told the court the defendant had denied going near her house.
“Later, when told she had DNA under her fingernails, he said he had been at her house and it was probably his DNA because she had scratched him on the cheek. Police officers at the time saw no mark on his cheek,” said Jones.
He told the court that Owens told a cellmate he committed the crime and revealed details about it that were not known to the public.
“I hope the court will read the transcript (of the trial),” he said.
“He threatened the victim. He was extremely angry. He had access to the apartment with a key. There was no sign of forced entry. The defendant said the victim had a lover. He closed and locked the door after killing her in front of her two infant children. She was shot, beaten and strangled.”
Jones said the victim had been strangled by Owens on other previous occasions. And, he said, the defendant confessed the crime to a fellow prisoner.
“The jury could have convicted on the defendant’s confession," he said.
“If Umah Owens is innocent, he should get out,” Jones said. “There is an awful lot at stake here. This leads to not another trial, but, to a finding of actual innocence.”
Judge Lewis said the testing would have to prove actual innocence.
“That is a higher burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt. The court needs to review the transcript. Within four weeks, I will have a written opinion,” he said.
The details of the case as presented to the jury during the trial in 2006 are as follows:
In August 2005, Owens and his wife Tara had been separated for four months. On Aug. 23, police arrested Owens after Tara complained he had assaulted her. On Aug. 24, a friend posted bail and he was released.
He talked negatively about his wife and said, “That (woman) is going to get hers.” A day or two later, he made another similar threat against his wife to the friend who picked him up and drove him to Tara’s apartment after dark on Aug. 26.
The man testified Owens had “some kind of bag with him” when he got out of the car. He said Owens was gone about 15 minutes.
He said he dropped Owens off at the Cape Charles beach at about midnight.
The next morning Tara’s mother went to her apartment and found the door locked. She entered through a window and found her two young grandchildren unattended. She saw blood splatters on the floor and walls and called police.
Police found Tara’s body in a field behind the house. She had been strangled, beaten in her head and shot in the thigh. A medical examiner concluded she died on Aug. 26 evening.
Owens was arrested and charged with the murder.