Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Murder conviction overturned

- By Michael P. Rellahan mrellahan@dailylocal.com

A Chester County man who had long asserted his innocence in the decade-old murder of a local man who was shot while playing a video game during a home invasion robbery saw his conviction overturned Wednesday by a federal appeals court.

The court found that the only evidence against defendant Marquis Rayner — his DNA on a Tshirt

found near the murder scene — was not enough to justify his conviction. Rayner had been serving a life sentence in state prison on second degree murder, robbery and related charges.

“There was no way to determine when Rayner’s DNA had been deposited on the shirt,” wrote Senior Judge Theodore McKee of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in a five-page opinion reversing an earlier decision in state court upholding Rayner’s conviction. “The DNA could have been left on the t-shirt — an easily moveable object — at any time.”

Rayner, 32, of Coatesvill­e, had for years protested that he had been wrongly convicted. At his sentencing before the former Judge James P. MacElree II in 2015, Rayner spent his time declaring his innocence.

“Not only has an innocent man been killed, an innocent man is getting sentenced life for this,” he said at the time. “I am innocent.

I did not set this up. This is a big mistake, and justice has not been served. You all got the wrong guy.”

McKee, a former Philadelph­ia Common Pleas judge and appointee of President Bill Clinton, noted in his opinion that there were at least two other DNA profiles on the shirt, and that it was linked to Rayner through his half-brother, Dominique Lee, with whom he lived and who was tied more directly to the robbery that led to the fatal shooting.

Although there was a “reasonable inference” that the t-shirt found near a jar that had been taken from the home where the shooting took place had been worn as a mask during in the robbery, the prosecutio­n did not establish otherwise that Rayner was the one wearing the mask, the judge said.

“A verdict of guilt cannot rest upon pure speculatio­n,” McKee wrote in his opinion. “Without

evidence establishi­ng when Rayner's DNA was left on the t-shirt or ‘sufficient additional evidence, circumstan­tial or otherwise,' connecting Rayner to the scene of the crime, no rational juror could have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

McKee ordered that Rayner be released from prison. His attorney, Samuel Stretton of West Chester, said on Friday that his client had been set free that day. He said that U.S. Judge John Michael Gallagher had ordered his release after a hearing Thursday in which a prosecutor from the Chester County District Attorney's Office, which had argued against the conviction being overturned, indicated McKee's decision would not be appealed.

Stretton said he expected Rayner would be picked up at the State Correction­al Institutio­n at Dallas in Luzerne County by his family and taken back to his home in Coatesvill­e.

Stretton, a veteran criminal defense attorney who represente­d Rayner at his 2014 trial, has long contended that the prosecutio­n lacked sufficient evidence to convict him. “There was no evidence of misconduct other than the DNA on that T-shirt where there were multiple other person's DNA,” he said.

“I have been fighting this case for 11 years now because I knew he was innocent,” Stretton said after getting McKee's opinion. He had argued the case before a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit in December. “A great burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”

District Attorney Deb Ryan, who spoke with the family of victim Dominque Nathan Joseph Williams on Thursday and told them of the court's decision, issued a statement Friday accepting the court's decision.

“We respect the court's decision in reversing Mr. Rayner's conviction,” Ryan said. “Our office remains committed to seeking justice and integrity in all our prosecutio­ns. This was an extremely difficult case where we had circumstan­tial evidence linking Mr. Rayner to this tragic robbery homicide.”

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