James L. Owens Jr., who spent 20 years behind bars on burglary and murder charges only to be freed in 2008 by a DNA discovery, has filed a $15 million lawsuit claiming Baltimore police and prosecutors intentionally suppressed exculpatory information in his case.

Owens, 46, says investigators pressured a key witness, who was later convicted as an accomplice in the case, into changing stories mid-trial in 1988 and that a jailhouse informant, who claimed Owens confessed, testified in exchange for special favors. The defense team wasn't told of either circumstance, according to the civil suit, which was moved into federal court recently from the city, where it was originally filed.

It's a disturbing case in which the only certainty is that a 24-year-old woman — a phone company employee and community college student — was brutally murdered a quarter century ago, stabbed, strangled and sexually assaulted in her Southeast Baltimore row house.

Both men convicted in Colleen Williar's death, including Owens, won the right to new trials and eventually freedom after a DNA test showed that blood and semen from the scene belonged to someone else. Each man claims he's innocent, but the victim's family has refused to accept it.

"They're both as guilty as can be," Williar's mother said when Owens was released.

She could not be reached for this story, nor could the prosecutor who originally tried the case. Attorneys for the Police Department and the Baltimore state's attorney's office did not respond to messages, and spokespeople for the agencies declined to comment.

The lawsuit combined with older court filings and newspaper reports tell a confusing tale.

Williar's brother, who would later commit suicide, discovered her nude body in an upstairs bedroom of her O'Donnell Heights home on Aug. 2, 1987. And only one man, James A. Thompson Jr., appeared to know anything about it.

He approached police the next day, claiming he'd found the murder weapon, a bloody knife, near the scene and asking for a $1,000 reward. When police pressed him, he said a friend, Owens, told him where to find the knife, which he then cleaned and kept.

Police arrested Owens based on Thompson's statement and took him into custody. While in jail, an informant also came forward, claiming that Owens confessed to the attack, the lawsuit says, and promising to testify in exchange for "help in getting … released, better conditions of confinement, and other rewards."

The informant and Thompson were the state's best trial witnesses. But on the morning he was scheduled to testify, Thompson changed his story again, claiming that the knife was his, but that Owens took it from him and returned it bloody.

That's the version of events he first told the jury.

"Despite the fact that Mr. Thompson had shown himself to be untrustworthy and a habitual liar, [police and prosecutors] decided that his third story was, as they would describe it later, 'sellable' to a jury," Owens' lawsuit claims.

The prosecutor grew suspicious of Thompson, however, and asked investigators to retrieve blood and hair samples, according to Owens' lawsuit. A forensic expert suggested at the time that Thompson's hair looked like it matched strands found at the murder scene.

Police told Thompson of the discovery, and over several hours of interrogation, demanded an explanation.

Thompson told several stories, then, ending with this: He said he stood at the foot of the bed masturbating while Owens attacked Williar. He was called back to the witness stand and confessed, shocking onlookers and the jury.

Owens was convicted of burglary and murder, though he was acquitted of the rape. Thompson later recanted before Owens' sentencing, but it was too late. Owens was ordered to life in prison. Thompson was convicted of rape, murder and burglary in a separate trial and also sentenced to life.

Both men spent years in prison, until the Innocence Project, which works to overturn unjust convictions, got involved in the case. The group fought for DNA analysis of semen found at the scene and blood found on Thompson's pants. None of it matched the victim or the defendants.

Owens won a new trial based on the results, and prosecutors chose to drop the charges against him in 2008, rather than retry the case. By then, five of the original witnesses were dead, and Thompson was no longer willing to testify.

Last year, Thompson was also granted a new trial, but he took a plea deal — entering an "Alford plea" to second-degree murder — rather than take his chances in another jury trial. He was sentenced to time served. Such a plea acknowledges that there is sufficient evidence to convict him but doesn't admit guilt.

One of Owens' attorneys in the civil case, James Gentry Jr., who has worked as both a police officer and a prosecutor, says police and prosecutors likely "jumped to conclusions" without thorough investigation.

"We believe that it was pretty outrageous conduct," Gentry said, adding that his team are "operating under the assumption" that both Thompson and Owens are innocent.

"It's a crazy case" he said.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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