Billy Glaze died a serial killer. For more than 25 years, he sat behind bars for the murders of three women in Minneapolis in the 1980s.

But just as he fell ill and was diagnosed with lung cancer in December, attorneys with the Minnesota Innocence Project were trying to free him. They introduced new DNA evidence in court that they say pointed to another man who is a convicted rapist, and claimed that no physical evidence linked Glaze to the murders.

But now that Glaze is dead, what happens to his case?

It’s a first-of-its kind question in Minnesota, where a judge will have to decide whether a DNA exoneration attempt can proceed after the defendant dies, defense attorneys said.

Prosecutors in Hennepin County moved last month to have Glaze’s latest arguments to the court dismissed, saying the case is now moot. They had remained confident that they had the right man and argued that a new trial wasn’t needed.

“His case is over when he died,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a recent interview. “What he had asked for is a new trial. When you’re dead, you can’t have a new trial.”

Innocence Project attorneys argue that not only is Glaze’s reputation at stake, but so is the public’s interest in learning whether the justice system worked fairly in his case. Perhaps more important, they say, is the question of whether the person responsible for the killings is still free and walking around.

“The real guy is still out there,” contends Julie Jonas, legal director for the Minnesota Innocence project. “A known rapist’s DNA was found at two of these crime scenes and we’re just ignoring it? … I think that’s the biggest reason for the public to be concerned.”

Witnesses and a note

Glaze, 72, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in December and died while serving three life sentences for the crimes, most recently at a prison in Delaware.

He had exhausted his appeals through the years — to the Minnesota Supreme Court and to federal courts. He contacted the Minnesota Innocence Project more than a decade ago.

In 1989, a jury found Glaze guilty of first- and second-degree murder in the bludgeoning deaths of Kathy Bullman, 19, Angeline Whitebird-Sweet, 26, and Angela Green, 21. All were found nude or mostly nude with their bodies positioned in ways that suggested they were victims of a serial killer.

At Glaze’s trial, several witnesses claimed to have seen him with the women before their murders; some placed him at or near the crime scenes. Some said Glaze made violent sexual remarks about Indian women. A transient testified that he saw Bullman’s killing. A woman with whom Glaze lived gave police a pearl ring that Glaze gave her that was similar to one Green had worn. Glaze said he bought the ring in a bar. A jail inmate also testified that Glaze wrote a note saying that he had “killed them.”

The cases prompted intense media attention and public outcry, including allegations that police hadn’t been aggressive in investigating crimes against Indians.

New DNA evidence

The Minnesota Innocence Project took up Glaze’s case and, in 2014, asked for a new trial. Project attorneys presented DNA testing of 39 items found at the murder scenes, including bodily fluids, clothing and other items. None of it linked Glaze to the crime scenes, but instead implicated another man — a convicted Minnesota rapist, the attorneys said.

They argued: DNA testing of sperm collected from Green’s body excluded Glaze but matched the other man; DNA testing of a cigarette butt that had been collected near Whitebird-Sweet’s body did the same.

Prosecutors say a vaginal swab from Green contained DNA from two men, and it can’t be determined when she had sex with the man whose DNA was found. The cigarette butt, they say, came from a heavily trafficked area.

Long after his convictions, Glaze confessed to a slew of murders in California, though he was never prosecuted, his attorneys said, because authorities believed he simply wanted to be moved to a prison in that state. It was the only time he told authorities that he had committed the Minnesota murders, his attorneys contend, and they believe the confessions to the Minnesota killings were also false.

Glaze’s attorneys say the case against him was riddled with circumstantial evidence and false statements. For instance, they say, the supposed witness to Bullman’s killing claimed to have witnessed more than 60 murders while in prison. Those who claimed to have seen Glaze near the Green crime scene were relatives or close friends of an Indian woman who had been raped and strangled six weeks before Bullman’s murder; and the inmate who produced Glaze’s note later admitted he was looking for a deal, they said.

Another hearing?

In recent court filings, attorneys on both sides point to other states where a convicted defendant has died while attorneys were working on the person’s case.

In one case, prosecutors said, a federal judge dismissed a prisoner’s petition, saying her death meant “there are no longer restraints on her liberty resulting from her conviction.”

Glaze’s attorneys, meanwhile, cited cases in Florida and Texas where the courts allowed posthumous exonerations.

While it isn’t likely that a Minnesota judge will grant a new trial in the Glaze case, it is possible to give the parties a hearing on his innocence, said Bradford Colbert, a resident adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “They should get an opportunity to prove that he did not commit the crimes,” Colbert said.

Prosecutors in the state have reviewed thousands of cases with Innocence Project attorneys, Freeman said. But his attorneys have spent enough time on Glaze and need to pursue other cases, he said.

Freeman pointed out this week that Glaze had spoken frequently about torturing and killing Indian women and that in the years since his arrest, there have been no similar killings.

“We have now spent tens of thousands of dollars, if not $100,000 plus, on this alleged innocence and it’s gotten nowhere,” Freeman said. “There’s an old-fashioned statement — enough is enough.”

Under Minnesota’s Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act of 2015, exonerated prisoners are eligible for compensation of at least $50,000 per year of incarceration plus restitution and other damages.

If Glaze were to be exonerated posthumously, it is unclear whether that act would apply to his case.