MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The daughter of a Tennessee man executed for murder in 2006 is asking that DNA evidence in the case be tested to determine once and for all if her father raped and killed a U.S. Marine more than 30 years ago.
Sedley Alley was put to death in the July 11, 1985, murder of Lance Cpl. Suzanne Marie Collins, who was stationed at the Naval Air Station Millington, as was Alley’s wife. Collins, 19, was abducted as she went on a run on the base, where she had just completed a nine-month course in avionics.
Her body was found the next day in nearby Edmund Orgill Park, according to The Daily Memphian. The Virginia native, who was set to graduate from the training school the day she was found, was severely beaten, with an autopsy showing she had been struck about 100 times, authorities said.
Collins was also strangled and sexually violated with a tree branch. The New York Times reported that her killer stripped the branch of its leaves and twigs, sharpened one end to a point and drove it repeatedly into her body with enough force that it pierced her lung.
Alley, then 29, was arrested the following day and charged with Collins’ murder, the Memphian reported. He confessed but later recanted the confession, saying it had been coerced.
Alley said he could not remember what happened the night Collins was killed because he had been drinking heavily. He was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to death.
April Alley, who, along with her brother, witnessed her father’s execution, filed a petition May 1 in Shelby County Criminal Court seeking DNA testing on evidence found at the scene, including a pair of red men’s underwear investigators believe were worn by Collins’ killer. According to the Memphian, the petition seeks the post-conviction DNA testing that was denied Sedley Alley prior to his death.
It also asks that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee use his executive authority to order the testing on the evidence, which a legal team from the Innocence Project verified is still intact and housed in storage. That evidence includes the victim’s underwear, the 31-inch branch used to penetrate her and a sample of Sedley Alley’s DNA, which the Times reported was collected and stored before his death.
The case marks the first attempt to use DNA evidence to clear someone who has been executed for a crime, Stephen Ross Johnson, a Tennessee attorney working on the case alongside the Innocence Project, told the Memphian.
“There have been other cases where certainly people have been exonerated and come off death row,” Johnson told the newspaper. “There have also been situations where DNA testing (was done) after someone died in prison, but this will the first one where someone was subjected to capital punishment and then their DNA tested.”
The Innocence Project, which represented Sedley Alley in his appeals, sought to have the evidence tested for DNA before his execution. The Tennessee parole board recommended that then-Gov. Phil Bredesen order the testing, but Bredesen instead told Alley’s lawyers to seek relief through the court system.
The courts denied Alley’s request.
“The Tennessee courts incorrectly ruled that Mr. Alley was not entitled to DNA testing, even if the testing could produce a match to a third party with a history of committing similar offenses,” Innocence Project officials said earlier this month.
Watch April Alley and her lawyers announce their bid to have the evidence in Suzanne Collins’ murder tested.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the lower court’s denial was incorrect in 2011, five years after Sedley was put to death. The high court ruled in State v. Powers that Tennessee’s post-conviction DNA law intended to allow defendants to prove their innocence by comparing their DNA to that from other possible suspects, including suspects whose genetic profiles are in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
“The courts got it wrong in 2006 when they allowed Mr. Alley to be executed before testing the DNA,” said Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project. “If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be entitled to DNA testing under the Powers ruling and the plain language of the post-conviction DNA analysis statute. We now have a chance to learn the truth in this case.”
A recent tip has also raised the possibility that another man accused in a rape and murder in another state might be the true killer in Collins’ case, the Memphian reported. The court petition filed by April Alley identifies the potential alternate suspect as Thomas Bruce, who, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is accused of sexually assaulting two women and killing a third at a Missouri Catholic supply store in November.
Bruce was taking courses at the same avionics training school as Collins in 1985, the petition states.
“I just want the truth,” April Alley wrote in an email to the Memphian. “The DNA evidence should have been tested before my father was executed. It’s too late for my father, but it’s not too late to find the truth. The court or governor should order DNA testing.”
The case against Sedley Alley
The night she was attacked, Collins left the barracks for her daily 10-mile run, the Times reported. Around 11 p.m., two other Marines passed her, jogging in the opposite direction.
The Marines moments later dodged a station wagon swerving in the road, headed in the same direction as Collins, the Times said.
A few seconds later, the men heard a woman screaming, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!”
They ran toward the screams and saw what they believed to be the same station wagon stopped alongside the road, the Times reported. It sped off as they approached.
The men ran to the barracks gate, where a guard sounded an alarm for a possible abduction.
Sedley Alley was stopped about an hour later near the base, driving a 1972 station wagon, the newspaper said. He did not have any visible injuries, according to a Navy investigator.
After talking to Alley’s wife, investigators concluded the two Marines had heard the couple arguing and, not knowing that Collins was then missing, canceled the alert for the station wagon, according to the Times. The Alleys were sent home and a guard was put on their home.
Collins’ body was found the next morning, and Alley was arrested.
Read April Alley’s petition to have the evidence against her father tested for DNA.
Sedley Alley petition for D... by on Scribd
Investigators said Alley told them he had hit Collins with his station wagon while driving drunk and then accidentally stabbed her in the head with a screwdriver. The petition filed by his daughter states that the medical examiner determined neither of those claims was accurate.
Alley later said investigators only turned on their tape recorder after he told them what they wanted to hear.
Physical evidence used to tie Alley to the crime included Type O blood on the driver’s side door of the station wagon. That type matched Collins, but it also matched Alley’s blood type, the Times said.
Paper napkins from a local restaurant were also found in the car and on the ground near Collins’ body, and an air conditioner pump found in the station wagon had reportedly been installed at a home near where Collins was jogging, the paper said.
No physical evidence from Collins was found inside the car or on Alley, the Times said. The petition for DNA testing also indicates that a witness on the base reported seeing a second station wagon carrying a couple -- potentially Alley and his wife -- around the time of Collins’ abduction.
Despite the lack of direct physical evidence, Alley was for decades after his conviction assumed to be the killer. An investigator in 2003 found a handwritten note, however, in which the medical examiner in Collins’ case estimated she had died after Alley and his wife were sent home that night -- and while military police were watching the family’s home.
Read the letter to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee from lawyers for Sedley Alley’s estate.
The investigator also learned that a boyfriend of Collins’ drove a station wagon and matched the approximate height of a man seen near the site of her abduction, while Alley was about 8 inches taller, the Times said. Alley’s complexion and hair color also failed to match the description from a witness.
Alley told his daughter a few weeks before his death that if he committed the heinous acts Collins was forced to suffer, he deserved to be executed, the court petition says. He told her he did not remember committing the crime, however, and did not believe he had.
Scheck said if the killer’s DNA can be pulled from the evidence, it can not only be tested against the known sample from Alley but can also be compared to profiles uploaded to public genealogy databases.
Dozens of cold cases have been solved over the past year using genetic genealogy, including murder cases decades old.
“The public’s interest in having the right defendant brought to justice extends beyond the life of a single defendant,” Scheck said. “If Tennessee executed the wrong person in 2006, the actual perpetrator may still be free to harm other people. This is a matter of public safety.”