The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled Thursday a man convicted of beating another man to death with a hammer after having sex with him for money must get a new trial because a key witness was later found to have lied in an unrelated case.
The unanimous ruling upholds a trial judge's decision to give James Strahl of Dakota City, Nebraska a new trial in the 1998 killing of William O'Hare at the victim's farmhouse in southeastern South Dakota.
The justices agreed with the trial judge's finding that jurors might have convicted Strahl of a lesser charge, but probably would not have found him guilty of first-degree murder without testimony from a jailhouse snitch about premeditation.
Aloysius Black Crow, who shared a jail cell with Strahl, testified that Strahl had confessed to killing O'Hare. He said Strahl told him he killed O'Hare because the South Dakota man would not give him a ride home, which prosecutors argued was evidence of premeditation.
Strahl was convicted of murder in 2007 and received a mandatory life prison sentence without possibility of parole. Investigators talked to Strahl in April 2000 after fingerprints linked him to the crime scene, but the case went cold until advances in DNA technology led to his arrest in June 2006.
Strahl also was sentenced to 10 years for stealing the victim's car. That conviction will stand because it was not based on Black Crow's testimony.
Prosecutors said the two men met at an adult bookstore in Sioux City, Iowa, in May 1998 and that Strahl had sex with O'Hare for money at O'Hare's home near Beresford. They said Strahl killed O'Hare with a hammer when he refused to drive Strahl home.
Strahl's fingerprints were on a can of beer and a bag of potato chips found in O'Hare's house and his DNA was on cigarette butts found at the house, according to court documents.
Strahl's DNA also was on a cigarette butt in O'Hare's station wagon, which was found a few blocks from where Strahl was living at the time, prosecutors said.
The state argued that Strahl's first-degree murder conviction should stand because Black Crow's perjury in an unrelated case deals only with questions about his credibility, not the main evidence against Strahl.
The Supreme Court noted that Circuit Judge Steven Jensen found that if jurors had known Black Crow lied in a similar, unrelated case, they probably would have disregarded all of his testimony.
"Without Black Crow's testimony, there was a paucity of evidence on how the murder occurred, defendant's connection to the murder weapon, and ultimately, proof of premeditation," Justice John K. Konenkamp wrote for the Supreme Court.
Black Crow also was a snitch in the case against a man charged with killing two women in May 1971. In preparing for David Lykken's trial, it was revealed that Black Crow had another inmate pose as Lykken to record a supposed confession.
Black Crow pleaded guilty to two counts of perjury and was sentenced to another 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors dismissed and have not refiled murder charges against Lykken, who is serving an unrelated 225-year prison sentence for raping and kidnapping his girlfriend in 1990.