Hair samples sent for tests in 28-year-old Delmont caseDELMONT — A convicted murderer is seeking to clear his name in the 1985 stabbing death of Jerry Plihal in Delmont.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
DELMONT — A convicted murderer is seeking to clear his name in the 1985 stabbing death of Jerry Plihal in Delmont.
Lewis Ashker, who is in prison in Sioux Falls, has succeeded in his long-lingering request to have hairs from the crime scene genetically tested.
“He was tried in 1986 before any DNA testing existed, so that was not available for Ashker to have certain items — hair — tested,” said Bob Mayer, assistant attorney general for South Dakota, who is handling the case.
Ashker and another man, Kurt Novaock, were convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Plihal during separate trials in 1986. Ashker’s trial took place in Douglas County and Novaock’s in Yankton County after a change of venue was granted.
A jury of eight women and four men convicted Ashker on June 11, 1986. According to The Daily Republic archives, testimony during the trial indicated the two men knew Plihal and went to his Delmont home June 13, 1985, to steal his gun collection. Prosecutors said the two men cased Plihal’s house prior to breaking in, believing Plihal was not home. But they found him inside and “knew they’d have to kill him.”
Then-Assistant Attorney General Jon Erickson said photographs of Plihal’s body showed five or six sharp stab wounds on his back. Erickson said this indicated whoever stabbed Plihal wanted him dead.
Ashker was sentenced to life in prison without parole on June 16, 1986.
At the crime scene in 1985, officials collected 26 hairs from Plihal’s body, 11 of which were found in his right hand.
Now, with help from the Innocence Project at the University of South Dakota School of Law, Ashker’s request is being processed. The Innocence Project works to exonerate and release wrongfully convicted people.
Through some mix-ups, the wrong sample of hairs was initially sent for DNA testing. Mayer eventually discovered the 11 hair samples were never sent in and were still in the file at the Douglas County Clerk of Courts.
“The criminologist from the 1986 trial examined the hairs, which were still encased in a microscope slide, and said they are the samples,” Mayer said. “The integrity of the hairs was not compromised.”
Since the South Dakota crime lab cannot perform mitochondrial testing, the 11 hair samples have been outsourced to the Arizona Public Safety Lab, he said.
Several people spoke up at a hearing regarding Ashker’s request about a month ago. Mayer said the holidays and other obstacles may have prevented the hair samples from arriving at the Arizona lab yet. Mayer said he’s not sure how long the testing may take.