Claiming innocence, inmate seeks DNA testing in 1976 slaying

RYAN J. FOLEY
This undated photo released by the Iowa Department of Corrections shows Gentric Hicks, an inmate at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa. Lawyers for Hicks, 73, maintain that he was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder in 1977 and are seeking DNA testing on an orange hunting cap that the killer left at the crime scene. (Iowa Department of Corrections via AP)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A man who has spent 43 years in prison for a murder his lawyers say his half brother likely committed is requesting DNA testing on a hunting cap left at the scene of the deadly robbery and shooting in southeast Iowa.

Gentric Hicks, 73, is serving a life sentence for the early-morning May 23, 1976, slaying of 28-year-old Jerry Foster at the Hill Crest Motel near Fort Madison. He is imprisoned at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, where he is considered a model inmate.

The Midwest Innocence Project and the wrongful conviction unit of the state public defender's office filed the petition on Hicks' behalf this week. Iowa is one of 13 states that has never had an inmate exonerated by DNA, but tests on previously unexamined crime scene evidence are being sought or are underway in several cases dating back decades.

Hicks' case is the oldest yet.

It is undisputed that the orange cap — recently found by defense lawyers after decades of post-trial storage at the Henry County Courthouse in Mount Pleasant — came off the killer’s head during the scuffle and shooting that killed Foster. Officers recovered it from the scene but DNA testing didn’t exist back then. The crime lab examined the cap for hairs but couldn't find any.

If new testing is ordered by a judge, the question will be whether enough DNA material can be extracted from inside the cap to create a profile, and if so, whether it's a match for Hicks.

Henry County Attorney Darin Stater said Thursday that prosecutors are reviewing the petition and still deciding how to proceed.

Foster lived at the motel, which was owned by his parents. They were white. Foster was shot to death while trying to protect his mother, Lorraine, from a black man who had posed as a middle-of-the-night customer but robbed her at gunpoint. The shooter fled on foot.

Foster’s father, Jimmie, grabbed a rifle and detained the driver of the getaway car outside the motel. The driver, Kenneth Lawrence, initially told Jimmie Foster and police that the shooter was his friend Willie Jefferson.

But within hours, Lawrence changed his statement and said from jail that the shooter was his acquaintance Gentric Hicks, Jefferson’s half brother.

Officers never interviewed or investigated Jefferson, who died in the 1990s. Instead, they immediately arrested Hicks, who was known in the local drug and partying scene and had previously served prison time for robbery. The murder weapon was never found.

Lorraine Foster identified Hicks as her son’s killer after picking him out of photo and courtroom lineups that did not include Jefferson. She repeatedly used racial slurs when talking to police, describing Hicks as having "the usual black face.”

A jury convicted Hicks in 1977 after hearing testimony from Lorraine Foster and Lawrence, who had a murder charge against him dropped in exchange for testifying against Hicks. An investigator also testified that fingerprints lifted from a motel door belonged to Hicks, with the chances of anyone else having similar features being "one in approximately seven million.”

Hicks testified that he had been out earlier that night at taverns with Lawrence, that he eventually passed out from drugs and alcohol and fell asleep at a friend’s place. He insisted he had nothing to do with the crime, saying at his sentencing, “I am innocent."

The petition alleges that Lorraine Foster’s identification of Hicks was unreliable because of problems with the lineups and her open racial animus. It also says the fingerprint analysis technique is now discredited and today would be considered inconclusive for a match.

The petition argues that Lawrence’s initial identification of Jefferson as the shooter was credible and that he only implicated Hicks after he had time to think of a new story.

Investigators never checked whether Jefferson had an alibi. They said they simply couldn't find him — even though prosecutors were able to subpoena him to testify in another case around that time. One agent suggested that Jefferson skipped town after a teen runaway committed suicide at his Burlington home.