Date of Birth: May 28,
Tankersley and the victim, a 65-year-old
woman, lived in the same hotel in Yuma, Arizona.
The victim had severe lung
disease, and utilized an oxygen tank on a continuous basis. The victim's
grandson allegedly owed Tankersley some money for drugs, and Tankersley
had told victim's daughter that the victim's grandson would "live to
regret it" if he did not meet with him.
On November 17, 1991, Tankersley
asked a neighbor where the victim resided, and then entered her room
with a strange look on his face. The victim was later discovered dead by
When the victim's son exited the
victim's room after finding her body, he encountered Tankersley, who
asked, "what's the matter Mike?"
The victim died from ligature
strangulation, apparently from her own oxygen tubes. She had been
sexually assaulted, and there was severe trauma to her vagina. Her body
was found nude, except for her bra, which was forced aside, exposing her
breasts. There were numerous deep bite marks on her breasts and face,
and one of her ear lobes had been bitten off. Feces were smeared on the
Presiding Judge: Thomas A. Thode
Prosecutor: Mary White
Start of Trial: October 19, 1993
Verdict: November 10, 1993
Sentencing: May 18, 1994
Especially cruel, heinous, and depraved behavior.
None sufficient to warrant leniency.
State v. Tankersley, 191 Ariz. 359, 956 P.2d 486 (1998).
Death Row inmate wins resentencing
Judge questions bite-mark evidence he
applied in 1994
By Flynn McRoberts; Chicago Tribune
December 24, 2004
A decade after sending a man to Death Row,
an Arizona judge on Thursday granted him a new
sentencing hearing based on inconclusive DNA tests and
questions about the bite-mark evidence used to convict
On his last
day before retiring from the bench, Yuma County Judge
Thomas Thode ruled that the new DNA tests and other
evidence were "insufficient to exonerate" Bobby Lee
Tankersley of the gruesome rape and murder of a 65-year-old
judge's ruling questioned the bite-mark evidence he had
used in 1994 to sentence Tankersley to death for the
slaying three years earlier of Thelma Younkin,
Tankersley's neighbor in a low-budget motel along what
then was Yuma's Skid Row.
"The DNA evidence standing alone does
little if anything to exculpate the defendant from his
guilt, but the inconclusive DNA as to critical bite
marks may be argued to diminish the appearance of
extreme brutality," Thode wrote. "The new DNA evidence
also raises other questions as to what happened the
night of the murder."
During a recent hearing held
over several days, DNA analysts disagreed over whether
they could exclude Tankersley as a contributor to
genetic material swabbed from marks on Younkin's body.
A jury convicted Tankersley in
1993 of raping Younkin and strangling her with the
oxygen tubing that helped her breathe. At the trial, a
forensic dentist testified he could match Tankersley's
teeth to many purported bite marks on her body.
As Thode noted in his ruling Thursday: "The
bite marks were a prime factor in this court's previous
decision to exact the ultimate penalty."
But it later became clear that the same
dentist, Dr. Raymond Rawson, helped send an innocent man,
Ray Krone, to Arizona's Death Row. A former postal
worker, Krone spent more than a decade in prison before
DNA testing proved Rawson wrong--connecting another man
to the crime and exonerating Krone.
A Tribune series earlier this year, "Forensics
Under the Microscope," showed that DNA tests such as
those in the Krone case have revealed that even leading
bite-mark experts make false matches.
Given the similarities in Rawson's
testimony at the trials of Krone and Tankersley,
prosecutors asked the Arizona Supreme Court to order new
DNA tests in the Tankersley case after Krone was
released in 2002.
During the recent hearing, Thode heard
competing interpretations of those test results. The
tests were ambiguous because they involved mixtures of
multiple genetic profiles.
At the center of the
disagreement was how confident forensic analysts should
be in linking a suspect to a crime when small amounts of
DNA from such mixtures are involved.
In Thursday's ruling, the judge
also said he had re-examined evidence of Tankersley's
alcoholism and blackouts presented at a hearing several
In ordering the new sentencing hearing,
Thode wrote: "Is the evidence of such nature and effect
that it would change the sentence? Were this sentence
other than death, the court would be inclined to think
not. However, in this case we have imposed the ultimate
punishment under our Constitution and traditional moral
Todd, the assistant Arizona attorney general who
presented the state's case, said the judge had "correctly
found that the new evidence did not warrant a new trial,
[but] that he felt more comfortable having a jury of Mr.
Tankersley's peers impose the appropriate sentence."
Todd said the defense could immediately
petition to review the judge's finding. Thode set a
hearing for Jan. 19 to consider scheduling and other
issues for the resentencing hearing--in front of a new
judge, because Thode retired Thursday.
If Tankersley is resentenced to death, he
could appeal again to the Arizona Supreme Court; if
sentenced to life in prison, he would be eligible for
parole after 25 years and would get credit for time
served, according to Todd.
Tankersley's lead attorney, Jennifer
Sparks, said she was "somewhat disappointed" by the
"We had hoped he would go further and order a new trial,
which we thought the evidence justified," she said.
For Tankersley's father, Leo, the news
was not as good as he had hoped, but "that's better than
nothing," he said.
"The one thing I always
figured was the evidence they used was that bite [mark]--and
that's nothing," Leo Tankersley added. "I never thought
they had enough evidence to convict him, so I'm glad
he's getting a resentencing."
Bobby Lee Tankersley