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Did Tennessee Execute an Innocent Man?

by David M. Reutter

Tennessee executed Sedley Alley by lethal injection on June 28, 2006, for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Collins. Seeley was denied DNA testing of evidence. His daughter, April Alley, believes Sedly is innocent and is pushing a court to order the DNA testing to prove it.

Following his conviction, Sedly twice petitioned for evidence in his case to be DNA tested. After his appeals and traditional post-conviction remedies were denied, Sedley sought testing under Tennessee's 2001 DNA Analysis Act. He was again denied.

The day before Sedley was due to be executed in May 2006, then Gov. Phil Bredesen granted a 15-day reprieve that allowed Sedley to again petition for DNA testing. Once again, that petition was denied. Since then, the rationale behind that denial has been held by the Tennessee Supreme Court to be faulty.

The appeals court held that Sedley could not seek DNA testing because the Act did not open the door to test against third-party specimens or enter the results into the computer to search for a “phantom defendant.” That narrow interpretation was held to be incorrect in a 2011 ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court. That ruling would have entitled Sedley to DNA testing.
While April pushed immediately for DNA testing following her father's execution, a new development renewed that push. The Innocence Project learned that another man who took courses from the same training school as Collins was under indictment for rape and murder and that he may be a serial offender.

The current petition for testing was denied by Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan. Her November 2019 order dismissing the petition was not based “on the merits of the substantive claims raised in the petition for DNA testing,” she wrote. She found the estate did not “have standing to file the petition for DNA analysis under the Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act.” The estate appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

“With all due respect to the state, the idea that we got due process in a case where it is now admitted by both parties that the court applied the wrong legal standard is simply not a fair argument,” argued Paul Clement, of the Kirkland and Ellis law firm, who is presenting arguments for the Innocence Project on April’s behalf, during oral arguments on February 3, 2021. “There was no fair hearing in that case, given an admittedly wrong standard.”

The state, however, has no interest in seeing if justice truly prevailed. “Capital litigated in the thick of it seems endless, seems unending. I know that better than many. But, eventually, when the capital defendant prisoner dies, through natural means or otherwise, it ends,” Assistant Attorney General Andrew Coulam argued. “That is a very important right to the state that that judgment become final and done. It is also an important right to victims.”

Due process, Clement argued, should support DNA testing in Seeley’s case. “I do think there would be fundamental unfairness here given that two things that seem to be used against Mr. Alley are the mistake in the prior proceeding and the execution,” he said. “Neither of those seem like reasons that someone should lose their right in court.”

Clement agreed the victims have rights, but he said their interest is also in assuring the correct perpetrator has been brought to justice. “The purposes area exoneration and they are also finding the right person,” he said. “With all due respect, I have as much sympathy for the victims of a crime as imaginable, but their interests are served if the person has been executed for the crime and the actual perpetrator is at large, and that is exactly what the Supreme Court said.”
The petition seeks DNA testing of 17 different items. Amongst them area stains on Collins’s T-shirt and bra, as well as a pair of red underwear found by her body that the prosecution argued belonged to the assailant.

“After 34 years of appeals by the defense, the Collins family continues to be the only victim in this case,” Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said in a 2019 statement.

If the testing is allowed and it exonerates Sedley, it will be the first case to prove the wrong man was executed for a crime in the United States. There were several evidentiary facts that cast his guilt into a dim light. Sedley’s confession said he hit Collins with his car, but an autopsy found she was not hit by a vehicle. He also said he stabbed her in the head with a screwdriver, but Collins had no such injuries. It was reported that a brown station wagon with blue plates was seen near the scene of the crime when committed. Sedley was driving a dark green station wagon with a blue plate. The tire tracks and shoe tracks at the scene did not match Sedley’s vehicle or shoes. A description of the perpetrator was of a man who was several inches shorter than Sedley and had a different hair color.

Sedley never wavered from the position he gave April after she started visiting him after she became an adult. She said, “I just want you to be honest with me and tell me the truth. It won’t stop me from coming to see you.” Sedley, who was intoxicated on the night in question, said, “April, if I did this, I don’t remember doing it. If it’s ever proven with DNA I did do this, I don’t want to fight my execution.”

The decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals will determine whether justice deems finality as more important than bringing the right person to justice.

“It's too late for my father, but it's not too late to find the truth,” April said.


Sources: New York Times,,

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