Top 10 Stories of Wrongful Conviction Overturned by DNA Evidence
Ever since the first use in the US, in 1989 of DNA to exonerate a person wrongfully convicted of a crime, the Innocence project has worked to ensure that justice is served.
It is quite frightening to think that without this DNA evidence over 325 innocent men and women in the US alone would still be behind bars, 20 of them on Death Row. In 161 of those cases the analysis of the DNA evidence has led police and prosecutors to the real perpetrators.
So why are so many innocent people judged to be guilty of crimes they did not commit? As you will see from the list below a number of reasons come to light, most often eyewitnesses get the ID wrong or forensic techniques were applied improperly. It is also not uncommon for the convictions to be the result of a false confession made at the time of arrest and subsequently retracted or due to false testimony by police informers seeking to gain advantage in their own cases.
Here is our list of 10 of the most interesting cases where convicts walked free because of DNA evidence.
10. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown
In 1984 teenage half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, both of whom suffered mental impairment, were arrested for the brutal rape and murder of 11 year old Sabrina Buie. There was no physical evidence to connect either of the convicted brothers to the murder but, following five hours of police interrogation without lawyers or family support present Henry McCollum confessed to the murder and Leon Brown agreed to sign a confession written down by the police.
In court both brothers protested their innocence claiming that they confessed under duress. Leon Brown was given a life sentence for rape, Henry McCollum was found guilty of both the rape and murder and sent to death row. In 2010 an analysis of DNA evidence not previously provided to the defense showed that it was linked to a local man, Roscoe Artis who was found guilty of a similar crime just one month after the murder of little Sabrina Buie. There is some strong evidence that the prosecutor in the original case ignored evidence pointing to the pair’s innocence. He has since refused to acknowledge the clear results of the DNA evidence.
Justice was finally served when, in 2014, the two men were finally released after serving 30 years for a crime they did not commit.
9. The Ford Heights Four: Kenneth Adams, Verneal Jimmerson, Willie Rainge and Dennis Williams
‘The Ford Heights Four’ were convicted of the 1978 murder of a young couple and the brutal gang rape of the woman. Kenneth Adam’s girlfriend was brought into the police station and held without access to a lawyer for a few days following which she confessed to having seen the four men rape the woman and watched as one of them, Dennis Williams, subsequently shot the pair. An informant claimed to have heard Dennis Williams and Willie Rainge boasting about the murder.
The charges against one of the men, Verneal Jimmerson, were dropped but Paula Gray, who had recanted her confession, was then charged with murder along with the remaining three men. An eyewitness put the three men near the site of the crime but the defense attorney failed to point out a major timing obstacle in the evidence. He also failed to point out other evidentiary inconsistencies relating to blood and hair. Adams and the others were convicted of the crime. Dennis Williams and Willie Rainge were re-tried and found guilty once again and Verneal Jimerson was tried for the crime when Paula Grey reverted to her original testimony to gain release from prison.
The men’s attorney was later disbarred for fraud in another case and admitted that he was too stressed, during the original trial, to defend the men properly. In 1994 the informant admitted to having made up his evidence to take advantage of a deal on charges against him for another crime, subsequently the four men were able to gain access to DNA evidence, the testing of which exonerated them and implicated another three men. Two of those men pleaded guilty to the crime in 1997. It appears that the police had received a tip off about the real perpetrators but ignored it; as a result of this the Ford Heights Four received a payout of $36m from the police officers.
8. Steven Avery
Steven Avery’s case is one of the most interesting chronicles of men exonerated by DNA. In June 1985 a young lady was sexually assaulted by a man on the shores of Lake Michigan. She identified a photograph of Steven Avery as her attacker and later gave a positive identification at trial. Steven Avery provided 16 alibi witnesses but a forensic examiner’s testimony that his hair matched that found on his shirt matched the victim and her own strong evidence led to his conviction.
In 1995 the DNA evidence in the crime was examined and was shown to be from an unknown person, this evidence was not enough to exonerate Avery. Further testing, in 2002, of hairs recovered from the victim showed that they were a match for a man convicted for a sex attack shortly after the one by Lake Michigan, the perpetrator bore a striking similarity to Steven Avery who was released in 2005.
Steven Avery and the victim co-operated with the authorities to work on a new eyewitness identification protocol for Wisconsin. On the same day the new protocol was adopted a young photographer Teresa Halbach was brutally murdered, Steven Avery and his nephew were convicted of the crime. He served 18 years of a sentence for a crime he did not commit; he is now in prison for the rest of his life for one the courts are convinced he did. Perhaps it might have been better for all concerned if he had never been released in the first place.
7. Sean Hodgson
Sean Hodgson was convicted for the 1979 murder of a 22 year old barmaid Therese De Simone in Southampton UK and served 27 years in jail for the crime. Sean Hodgson’s blood type matched blood found at the scene and he initially confessed to the murder although he retracted his confession during his trial. His defense argued that little or no weight should be given to his confession as he was a pathological liar.
At the time the murder took place DNA sampling was not available as a tool in investigations. Per UK regulations, however samples were taken and stored against the possibility of tests being available in the future and, in 2008, the police and UK Forensic Science Service tested the samples collected at the time against Sean Hodgson’s DNA. As a result the case was sent to the English Court of Appeal and Sean Hodgson was released in 2009.
6. Gary Dotson
Gary Dotson was the first convict in the US to have his conviction overturned on the strength of DNA evidence. He was convicted for a violent kidnapping and rape of a young woman in 1977
The victim assisted the police in preparing an identity sketch and then identified Gary Dotson from photographs and in a lineup. Samples were taken and showed the presence of both type A and type B blood. Gary Dotson had type B blood but so did the victim, the semen recovered tested as type A. The analyst further claimed that pubic hair samples were a match for Gary Dotson and not for the victim (hair analysis is not reliable).
In 1985 the victim admitted to having lied about the rape. Gary Dotson requested a retrial but was denied as the judge felt that the victims recantation was not believable, the case was handed over to the State Governor who refused to issue a pardon. Gary Dotson was, however, released on parole but subsequently re-jailed for domestic abuses conviction was re-affirmed by the Appellate Court in 1987.
By 1988 new DNA tests were becoming available and Gary Dotson’s legal team had the samples analyzed to prove that he could not have committed the rape. His conviction was subsequently overturned but by that time he had served 10 years in prison. The real perpetrator was not found but the analysis of the samples showed that some of them could have come from the victim’s then boyfriend.
5. Kirk Odom
Kirk Odom was convicted of the 1981 rape and sodomy of a young woman and the armed robbery of her apartment. The victim gave a description of the attacker to the police but was unable to identify her attacker in photographs shown to her. A few weeks later a police officer came across the 18 year old Kirk Odom and, thinking he looked similar to the sketch of the suspect arranged for the victim to be shown a photograph. She thought there were some similarities between Kirk Odom and her attacker (he was the only clean-shaven suspect shown to the victim) and asked to see a lineup where he was identified as the attacker.
Kirk Odom claimed to be at home at the time of the attack and his mother corroborated his testimony. An FBI analyst tasked with examining hair samples found on the victim claimed that they were ‘indistinguishable’ from Odom’s hair. Such a statement was a gross exaggeration as hair analysis is inexact and cannot give a match. Kirk Odom was convicted on the basis of the identification and the hair analysis.
Kirk Odom was released on parole in 2003 but was required to sign the register of sex offenders for the District of Columbia. In 2009 the evidence in his case was re-examined – his convictions were vacated. He was declared innocent in 2013, just in time for his 50th birthday, he was 18 when he was arrested and lived most of his life under the shadow of a wrongful conviction. Following his exoneration it was announced that all convictions which relied on hair analysis will be reexamined.
4. Govinda Mainali
Govinda Mainali traveled from his native Nepal to work in Japan. There he was arrested for the 1997 murder of a businesswoman/prostitute Yasuko Wantabe who was strangled to death in a brutal attack that attracted prurient headlines across Japan, mostly related to the lifestyle choices of the poor victim.
DNA evidence including semen and samples from her nails and body hair was taken from the victim but was not tested at the time of the original trial because the semen samples were allegedly too small for the then available techniques. A saliva sample found on the victim was known at the time of arrest, not to belong to Govinda Mainali but the prosecution withheld this evidence (as entitled to do under Japanese rules at that time). Similarly pubic hair found at the scene was known not to be a match.
Govinda Mainali was originally declared innocent for lack of evidence but found guilty in a retrial which concluded in 2000 and given a life sentence. Nevertheless he continued to protest his innocence in the affair and requested a re-trial. His request was only granted in 2012 at which point the DNA evidence was examined and he was declared innocent. Following his release he was deported back to Nepal for overstaying his visa, he had served a total of 15 years in jail.
3. Timothy Cole
Timothy Cole was sentenced to 25 years for the rape of a student in 1985. The student was taken to a field where she was subjected to a prolonged rape before being returned to town. Several other rapes had occurred at around the same time. Timothy Cole became a suspect when he spoke with a police officer on campus and was subsequently identified in a photograph and then in a lineup. None of the other victims of similar attacks recognized Timothy Cole so he was tried for only the single rape.
The evidence against Cole related to his blood type (which he shared with the victim) being present in the samples and the fact that hair found on the victim was similar to Cole’s. Timothy Cole had extensive alibi evidence which was disregarded as was the fact that he did not smoke due to having asthma (the perpetrator smoked during the attack). The judge refused to allow evidence of other similar attacks that Cole could not have committed to be presented.
In 1995, on the expiry of the statute of limitations, a convicted sex offender, Jerry Johnson wrote to police to confess the crime but these letters were not acknowledged by the police or prosecutor’s office. Cole died in prison in 1999 having maintained his innocence from the first to the last. In 2008 samples from the case were tested against Timothy Cole and Jerry Johnson and Johnson identified as the perpetrator, he confessed the crime to a judge and Cole was granted a full, if posthumous pardon. The victim, horrified at the miscarriage of justice, worked closely with his family to exonerate him and has spoken out to raise awareness of the possibility of misidentification by witnesses.
2. Michael Phillips
Michael Phillips made history as the first US man to be exonerated by a DNA test he did not request. He was charged with the 1990 rape of a 16 year old girl at a motel. Her attacker had worn a ski mask and the girl was bravely able to pull it up during the course of the attack. She claimed to recognize her attacker as someone that she had seen around the motel. Michael Phillips was arrested by armed police in a dawn raid on his property and taken from bed straight to the police station where the victim identified him in a line up. Samples were taken but DNA tests were not done at the time of the investigation.
Michael Phillips maintained his innocence until offered a reduction in sentence to 12 years through a plea bargain (he was potentially looking at a 99 year sentence). He served his full term but was then re-arrested and made to serve a further 6 months for failure to register as a sex offender. He tried and failed to have his conviction overturned and decided to accept the fact that he would have to live with the stigma of his conviction for the rest of his life.
Unknown to Michael Phillips his case was on the list for review by the Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit which works to review potential claims of wrongful conviction. Having had significant success (33 exonerations from 2007) they turned their attention to rape cases that occurred prior to routine DNA tests becoming mandatory for crime samples.
The samples were able to identify the real perpetrator but sadly, as Texas has a statute of limitations for rape crimes, he could not be prosecuted and brought to justice.
1. Cathy Woods
While the majority of those whose convictions have been overturned have been male there are some women whose innocence has been proved beyond doubt. In 2015 Cathy Woods was finally released from a 34 year imprisonment as a result of DNA evidence.
In 1979 Cathy Woods, who suffered mental health problems, had confessed to the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell whose body was found with her hands tied and throat slit. Police claimed that Cathy Woods had provided them with key information (all of which was available from the public accounts of the murder) and sent her to trial claiming that Cathy Woods had killed Mitchell in a fit of pique over rebuffed sexual advances. Other than her confession and the fact that she was working in the local area at the time of the incident there was nothing to link her to the murder. She was convicted in 1980 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2013 DNA evidence from the scene of the crime was re-tested and found to be male. In 2014 the DNA was matched to a man who was in the right area in 1976 on bail for an attempted murder. His DNA was also found to match that found in three other murders that took place around the time of the Mitchell murder. Cathy Woods was released in September 2014 and all charges against her were dismissed in March 2015
These cases listed here are just some of the stories of men and women exonerated for crimes they did not commit through the analysis of DNA. Why were so many people wrongly convicted and what does that say about the justice system in the US and others worldwide where people can be sent away from society for crimes they did not commit? Some were even at risk of execution for those crimes.
The main reasons for wrongful conviction are strikingly similar in many cases. Sometimes people give a false confession, usually as a result of over pressured questioning techniques by the police involved. In some cases the analysts responsible for reviewing the evidence applied their techniques in the wrong way or gave a faulty interpretation. A faulty analysis of hair evidence is surprisingly common across many of the stories of people set free by DNA, analysis often claim to be able to match hair with a particular suspect on the basis of characteristics but this is almost impossible.
It is also surprisingly common for witnesses to a crime to make a misidentification. This is often more common when trying to identify someone from a different race, such difficulties can be compounded by differences in the photographs (positioning, lighting etc) of potential suspects shown to a victim. It is also not uncommon for too much weight to be given to the evidence of informers many of whom are not disinterested parties as they are offered an inducement such as a sentence reduction if they provide evidence to the prosecutors.
The stories of these people should serve as a warning to society and to our police and prosecutors to ensure that a single crime does not give rise to two innocent victims.