By Ben Dobbin
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A twice-convicted sexual predator was acquitted Thursday of bludgeoning to death a blind homemaker at her home in upstate New York in 1972.
A jury deliberated for four hours before finding Willie James Kimble, 78, not guilty of sexually assaulting and killing Annie Mae Cray in Rochester on Oct. 29, 1972 — the week before Richard Nixon was re-elected president.
It was one of the nation's oldest cold-case murders to come to trial. In 2009, investigators uncovered DNA evidence on a bed blanket linking Kimble to the attack.
After four days of testimony, defense lawyer Kevin Karnyski theorized Cray was killed by her husband, Ezra, during a drunken quarrel.
The prosecution "can't explain how his DNA got there, just that it was there," which creates a reasonable doubt about his guilt, Karnyski said in closing arguments. "DNA cannot tell you that he killed her, that he was there when it happened, that he sexually assaulted her."
"Obviously I respect the jury's verdict, but I disagree with it," prosecutor Sandra Doorley countered in an interview. "It's unfortunate. After all these years, we believe he's Annie Mae's killer and Annie Mae didn't get justice."
Kimble smiled when the verdict was read. He will remain jailed without bail until a March 28 hearing on charges he violated his sexual-offender status by skipping town in 2009 while the murder was being re-examined. After a lengthy search, police tracked him down in his native Sarasota, Fla., last year.
Distantly related to the Crays, Kimble spent two decades in prison, including seven years for the attempted rape of a 6-year-old girl in July 1973 and 10 years for raping a 17-year-old girl in 1981.
In summer 2009, police Investigator C.J. Dominic — the son of a detective who had questioned Kimble as a potential suspect in 1973 — obtained a DNA match from the semen-stained blanket that had somehow survived an evidence-room overhaul.
At age 52, Annie Mae Cray had gone blind from untreated glaucoma and was largely confined to home. She'd stopped working as a domestic and her husband, a construction worker, was unemployed and struggling with alcoholism.
Police said she answered a knock on the front door at 6 a.m. that fall morning, evidently recognizing the caller's voice because she was ultra-careful about strangers in a blighted city neighborhood. Ezra Cray said the intruder clubbed him unconscious with a firewood log that was used to crush his wife's skull.
Cray, who died in 1990, told police he didn't see his attacker but suspected Kimble, who lived a few blocks away. But even though police poked holes in an alibi Kimble provided, they were unable to find physical evidence tying him to the attack.
Genetic profiling came into widespread use in crime detection in the 1990s. While DNA evidence has been used to overturn 86 wrongful murder convictions since 1989, it has become an equally vital tool in closing dozens of murder cases many years after they happen, forensic science experts say.
Cray's grandson, Enoch, said he was startled by Kimble's acquittal.
"I'm positive he's the one that's responsible," he said. "He'll get his — maybe not in this life but in the next he'll have to answer for it."
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