LITTLE ROCK — A month after a Little Rock television anchorwoman died in October 2008 following a rape and beating in her home, investigators unexpectedly found a suspect in east Arkansas who was linked to the crime by DNA evidence from an alleged rape in Marianna.
Curtis Lavelle Vance was convicted of capital murder in 2009 for the slaying of Anne Pressly, a morning host for Little Rock television station KATV. Pressly also appeared in Oliver Stone’s movie "W."
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Lee County, where Vance is charged with the April 21, 2008, rape of a Marianna High School teacher.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Vance for the Pressly killing, but jurors opted for a sentence of life in prison without parole after listening to penalty phase testimony about Vance being abused as a boy by his drug-addicted prostitute mother and about his devotion to members of his family, including his three children.
Vance, 30, was linked to Pressly’s killing by a single hair that was found in her bedding at her Little Rock home. He has appealed his conviction, arguing among other things that the evidence from the Marianna rape case should not have been allowed at trial. Vance had emerged as a suspect in the Marianna case even before DNA samples from the victim were analyzed.
The teacher’s testimony was a key part of Vance’s capital murder trial in Little Rock. The victim described how her attacker, whom she did not see, entered her home and assaulted her, threatening her if she dared to look at him. There were similarities in the way the women were brutalized, which prosecutors highlighted for jurors.
Prosecutor Fletcher Long, who is pursuing the charge against Vance in Lee County, said his case is simple.
"The guts of the case is the testimony of the victim and the DNA evidence," Long said.
The case had been scheduled for trial in November, but the judge granted a delay to give the defense more time to prepare.
The attack in Marianna occurred months before the Pressly slaying. The state Crime Laboratory gave Pressly’s case top priority so the DNA analysis from the hair found at Pressly’s home was completed quickly.
The DNA did not match anyone in the law enforcement database until evidence swabbed from the victim in Marianna was analyzed weeks later. That gave Little Rock police a suspect, and Vance was arrested.
Vance made a series of statements to investigators, one of which wasn’t recorded, though an officer testified that Vance admitted to attacking Pressly. In taped interviews played for jurors, Vance was vague about what happened the night Pressly was attacked, once saying that he was present but two other people beat her.
"The situation ... I guess it got out of hand," Vance said in one police interview.
Though Vance tried to avoid implicating himself, Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Johnson explained to jurors that Vance revealed he knew details about the crime scene that had not been made public. Vance also told police that he worked at a grocery store in Marianna, and an officer testified that calls were made from Pressly’s stolen phone to that store.
Vance’s alleged rape victim testified in the Pressly trial that she had moved to Marianna under the Teach for America program and taught biology and human anatomy at Lee High School for seven years, leaving after she was attacked. A police officer who came to her aid after she fled her home wearing only a robe, was one of her former students.
The woman, now 34, testified that Vance entered her home at about 6 a.m., shortly after she’d gotten up to start her day. He grabbed her from behind around the waist and put a hand over her mouth. The woman’s car had been broken into earlier and she said a house key may have been taken, which would have allowed the culprit quiet entry.
She testified that the attacker angrily said, "I have a gun. Don’t do anything or I will kill you."
The woman testified that she didn’t resist "because I didn’t want to die."
She said she could tell her attacker was taller than she was. The victim is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, and Vance stands just under 6 feet.
The woman said her attacker repeatedly threatened to kill her and several times said, "I know your house."
After the rape, the man locked her in her laundry room, but the victim was able to get out through a back door and find friends to help her and summon police. She testified that the attacker stole three $1 bills and her cell phone.
She testified for about 40 minutes.
The former student, Officer Michael Thomas of the Marianna police, testified that the victim was "horrified" as he tended to her. At the hospital, a nurse administered a rape kit and police kept the bathrobe as evidence.
Vance’s defense lawyers worked to point out problems with the evidence from the rape case, including a mistaken listing for the victim’s race, which law officers testified was simply a typo.
A DNA technician from the state Crime Laboratory explained there was a backlog of cases and the samples taken from the Marianna rape weren’t entered into a database until Nov. 26, 2008, which produced an instant match to the Pressly case and gave police Vance as a suspect.