Category Archives: DNA

On DNA, Prosecutors Can’t Handle the Truth…

From the DetroitNews:

By Dave Moran, clinical professor of law and the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

On Sept. 8, my client Jamie Peterson walked out of a jail in Kalkaska, exonerated by DNA after 17 years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit.

The DNA testing not only excluded Peterson but matched another man, Jason Ryan, who will stand trial later this year.

I am thrilled that Peterson is finally free. But I am also angry that the previous Kalkaska County prosecutor, aided by a local judge, managed to prevent the DNA from being tested and the real perpetrator from being identified for 12 years, even though they knew the DNA did not match Peterson. For 12 long years, Peterson remained in prison and Jason Ryan remained free because the prosecutor did not want to know the truth.

Peterson was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of Geraldine Montgomery even though the male DNA recovered from her rape kit did not match him.

At trial, prosecutor Brian Donnelly repeatedly insinuated that another stain found on Montgomery’s shirt would match Peterson if it could only be tested. Since none of the physical evidence matched Peterson, he was convicted entirely on a series of wildly inconsistent confessions he had made to the police, who knew that he was mentally ill.

By 2001, DNA testing had improved to the point that the stain on the shirt could be tested. Further, the CODIS system had come online so that the unknown male DNA from the rape kit could be compared to state and national databases of thousands of convicted felons.

One would think that the prosecutor would want to know the identity of the unknown male whose DNA was in Montgomery’s rape kit. But no, Donnelly fought for 12 years to keep the DNA from being tested.

When the issue went to court in 2002, Judge Alton Davis issued a baffling opinion concluding that since DNA wasn’t used to convict Peterson, there was no reason to find out whose DNA was inside and on the victim’s body. Donnelly continued to successfully resist repeated requests for DNA testing for another decade.

When I think about how Donnelly and Judge Davis fought the DNA testing in the Montgomery case, I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Rather than risk learning the uncomfortable truth that an innocent man might have been convicted, they chose to not find out who left DNA inside and on Geraldine Montgomery the night she was savagely murdered.

Finally, a new prosecutor, Michael Perreault, was elected in 2012, and to his great credit, he readily agreed to DNA testing when we and the Center on Wrongful Convictions approached him. The testing was performed in 2013, and it proved that all of the male DNA, including the stain on the shirt, came from the same man. A CODIS search quickly identified that man as Jason Ryan, who had been in the pool of original suspects in 1996. Ryan was finally arrested last December.

But the kind of obstruction we saw with Peterson continues to happen in other cases.

On Sept. 2, just six days before Jamie Peterson walked free, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by Oakland Circuit Judge Rae Lee Chabot that blood found on and near a murder victim, Robert Meija, shouldn’t be DNA tested even though the prosecution conceded that the blood type did not match Meija or Gilbert Poole, the man convicted of Meija’s murder. Despite the Cooley Innocence Project’s investigation that pointed to another suspect and its offer to pay for the testing, the Oakland County prosecutor opposed testing, making the same argument that was used to deny Peterson testing: since the blood wasn’t used to convict Poole, why should we test it now to find out who left the blood?

It’s so easy to answer that question. We should test that blood because the DNA may very well hit on a person who remains at large and who has continued to commit other crimes. There was only one perpetrator in the Poole case. Identifying a complete stranger to Poole, as Ryan was to Peterson, would strongly suggest that the wrong man is in prison.

The bottom line is this: Why doesn’t the Oakland County prosecutor want to know whose blood was found at the scene of a vicious murder? More broadly, why are some prosecutors so afraid of the truth? And why are some Michigan judges willing to help them hide the truth even when it means leaving violent criminals free to commit more crimes?

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

In prison since 2003, yet authorities knew man wrongfully convicted in 2007

Shocking news coming from Spain, where it has become clear that a Dutch citizen, Romano van der Dussen, convicted in 2005 of a series of sexual assaults, REMAINS in prison, despite DNA proving his innocence in 2007.

Spanish authorities have had van der Dussen in prison since the rapes took place in 2003. He was found guilty on – now definitively erroneous – eyewitness identifications (with no other links between the suspect and the crimes) in 2005. 1410717812_066741_1410798646_sumario_normal

ven der Dussen, the photofit, and Mark Dixie

However, in 2007, INTERPOL were informed by British police, that convicted murderer Mark Dixie – serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of 17 year old model Sally Ann Bowman in the UK – had previously lived in Malaga in 2002-2003. Spanish authorities uploaded the DNA obtained from the sexual assaults, and subsequently received a report in March 2007 that the DNA from the scenes matched British murdered and serial offender Mark Dixie.

One might expect that in 2007, Spanish authorities – horrified that they were keeping an innocent man behind bars, would move swiftly to ensure his release. Instead, the case has bounced around the legal system, delayed by legal technicalities. His solicitor is now awaiting fingerprints and DNA of Dixie from British authorities to proceed further with securing the release of van der Dussen. ELEVEN years since his imprisonment, and SEVEN years since the authorities discovered his innocence. What can the Spanish possibly be doing?

Read more here:
Dutchman in Spanish jail waits for DNA justice

Fuengirola court reopens sexual assault case

Spanish authorities reopen Dutchman’s rape case

There are more detailed reports in Spanish and Dutch e.g.:
En la cárcel pese a las pruebas de ADN

Scalia once touted exoneree’s death sentence as example of capital punishment’s worth

“A North Carolina death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence on Tuesday was once held up by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an example of someone who deserved to die,” the Huffington Post reports. You can read the details here.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Exoneree Clarence Harrison makes music with his new album “Life Sentence.”
  • Pennsylvania Innocence Project client Han Tak Lee walks free in Pennsylvania on Friday after his arson conviction is thrown out by a federal judge
  • After long battle, California Innocence Project client Timothy Atkins declared factually innocent and to receive state compensation for his wrongful conviction
  • Steve Drizin writes about the joint effort of Northwestern U and U Michigan to exonerate Jamie Lee Peterson
  • Mississippi Innocence Project writes about the potentially false testimony in a number of cases by medical examiner Steven Hayne
  • Original detectives back bid by Michigan Innocence Clinic to get new trial for Jeff Titus
  • Wisconsin Innocence Project seeks DNA testing in 1982 murder case

Victory in Michigan for Two Innocence Network Member Organizations…

From an email by Josh Tepfer (with permission):

I’m delighted to share the news that in a 23-page decision issued today, Judge Janet Allen of the Kalkaska Circuit Court vacated the conviction of Jamie Lee Peterson and ordered a new trial. Mr. Peterson has been incarcerated for over 17 years. The post-conviction work that led to this new trial was a joint effort of students and attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School (attorney team led by Caitlin Plummer and Dave Moran) and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law (attorney team of me and Steve Drizin).  The opinion is attached.

Mr. Peterson was convicted of the October 1996 rape and murder of 69-year-old Geraldine Montgomery in her own home. The heinous nature of the crime shocked this small, sleepy town in northwest Michigan. Ms. Montgomery, who lived alone and was a pillar of the community, was found asphyxiated in the trunk of her own car with the engine running and the garage closed. The police immediately concluded that she was a victim of sexual assault given that her vaginal swab showed male semen. On her shirt, moreover, was a stain of her saliva mixed with male seminal DNA.

The crime was unsolved for four months when Jamie Lee Peterson made a detailed confession during a mostly audio recorded confession. Peterson, who has organic brain damage and mental illness, confessed to committing the crime himself. After the confession, the rudimentary DNA testing available was conducted on the vaginal swab. That testing excluded Mr. Peterson as the source of the male DNA. DNA testing on the shirt stain, however, was unable to be conducted given the state of the technology at the time. After the testing, the police re-interrogated Mr. Peterson, explaining to him that the DNA testing proved it was him but also showed that he was lying about having no accomplices. Over the next several days, Mr. Peterson confessed again, recanted, and then confessed again and again and again. In total, he confessed roughly six or seven times to police. During these confessions, he named several accomplices, but further DNA testing and police investigation cleared all of these named accomplices. The audiotapes also reveal Peterson failing to get basic, uncontroversial facts about the crime scene correct unless he was specifically told the details by the police. For example, Peterson continually got wrong the clothes the victim was wearing, or where the rape occurred. Only after being provided the correct information would Peterson include this information within his subsequent confessions.

 Ultimately, the State concluded that they believed Peterson guilty and that he was merely unwilling to name his accomplice. They prosecuted him under the great unindicted co-ejaculator theory. They argued that Peterson was likely responsible for the untestable stain on the victim’s shirt, and his unknown accomplice was responsible for the vaginal swab. Peterson was convicted in 1998.

Over the next decade and a half, all of Peterson’s appeals failed. Moreover, earlier post-conviction requests for DNA testing using updated technology that could identify the source of the male DNA in the vaginal swab were blocked by the prosecution and refused by the courts. This was perhaps the oddest fact about the case – the State theorized that there was an unknown accomplice who was responsible for the vaginal swab, but they refused to try and identify this person.

In May 2013, after retaining Mr. Peterson, attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions met with the Michigan State Police and the current Kalkaska County prosecutor and persuaded a new regime to conduct the requested DNA testing. This DNA testing resulted in identifying the source of the male DNA in the vaginal swab. Further, technology had advanced to the point where testing could now be conducted on the shirt stain. That testing showed that the male on that shirt stain was the same person as in the vaginal swab. The DNA did not support a theory of two perpetrators. A full scale re-investigation by the Michigan State Police resulted in the arrest of this man – Jason Ryan – earlier this year. No credible evidence has been established to indicate that Ryan and Peterson had any association. Ryan has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Despite this new evidence and the Ryan arrest, the prosecutors have still objected to any relief for Mr. Peterson. After extensive briefing and an oral argument last month, the court issued this opinion today. It is a glorious opinion with some great language on how to analyze claims prospectively and on false confessions.   

Many students contributed to this effort from two different big ten schools! It was a great collaborative clinical experience and we are delighted for Mr. Peterson. Great day! I want to send a shoot out to Mr. Peterson’s trial and appellate attorneys, Robert Carey and Al Millstein. They fought an uphill battle for many years in this small community but never gave up believing in Mr. Peterson.

Joshua A. Tepfer

Clinical Assistant Professor

Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth

Northwestern University School of Law