Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Prosecutors won't retry Innocence Project case

When Steven Avery was freed from prison in 2003, his lawyers and prosecutors all agreed that scientific evidence exonerated him of a sexual assault that had put him behind bars for 18 years.

There was no attempt to retry Avery, who would be convicted of murder four years later; and Avery was declared not only not guilty, but innocent of the sexual assault.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are sharply at odds, however, over a decision Monday not to put Robert Lee Stinson on trial again for murder.

Like Avery, Stinson was freed from prison - after 23 years - through the efforts of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. The University of Wisconsin Law School program takes cases of defendants it believes may have been wrongly convicted.

But where DNA evidence persuaded Manitowoc County prosecutors of Avery's innocence in the sexual assault, bite-mark evidence has not swayed Milwaukee County prosecutors on Stinson's alleged role in a murder.

After a court hearing Monday where it was announced that Stinson would not be retried, Assistant District Attorney Norman Gahn indicated that prosecutors still believe Stinson was responsible for killing a 62-year-old neighbor in 1984.

A new bite-mark analysis produced by the Wisconsin Innocence Project "raised some questions, but it didn't have much of an impact on our decision," Gahn said.

Gahn asserted that no factual evidence pointed to Stinson's innocence, but that the age of the case made it impossible to retry, given that some evidence had been destroyed and the memories of some witnesses had faded.

The comments upset Keith Findley, one of the Wisconsin Innocence Project lawyers who represent Stinson.

"It's disheartening to see the unwillingness to acknowledge a mistake and to continue to drag an innocent man through the mud over this," Findley said.

The difference in reliability of bite-mark evidence, as compared with DNA evidence, appears to be a key reason for the rift between the prosecution and the defense.

Neighbor of victim

Stinson, now 44, was a neighbor of Ione Cychosz when her body was found in a vacant lot near her home.

Besides being bitten, she had been beaten and stabbed.

According to Findley, who assisted fellow University of Wisconsin law professor Byron Lichstein in representing Stinson, Stinson became a suspect after police began interviewing neighbors.

The officers had been told, based on an analysis of the bite marks on Cychosz's body, to look for a man missing a tooth - and Stinson was missing one.

A dental scientist, L. Thomas Johnson, testified that the bite marks were made by Stinson. A jury found Stinson, who had what his lawyers described as a complicated alibi, guilty, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

At the time, according to Findley, Stinson was a "mild-mannered, gentle" man whose only prior conviction was for shoplifting as a juvenile.

After taking Stinson's case several years ago, the Wisconsin Innocence Project had the evidence analyzed by four experts using improved technology.

All four, Findley said, agreed that the evidence specifically excluded Stinson as a possible source of the bite marks.

Johnson, who now works at Marquette University, said he re-analyzed the bite marks using modern techniques and again concluded that they were made by Stinson.

The difference in conclusions was in contrast to Avery's sexual assault case. In that case, DNA evidence not only excluded Avery but matched the DNA of a convicted sex offender, Gregory Allen, who was already in prison.

After reviewing the new findings in Stinson's case, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Patricia McMahon ordered Stinson's release in January and gave prosecutors six months to decide whether to retry him.

At the time, District Attorney John Chisholm said his office took issue with some of the arguments by Stinson's attorneys, but he agreed Stinson should at the very least receive a new trial.

Chisholm could not be reached Monday for comment.

Adjusting to being free

In an interview after the hearing, Stinson would not comment on Gahn's statement about his alleged role in the murder, but said he was "very excited" there would not be a second trial. He said he has a new fiancée and has been adjusting to life away from prison for the past six months.

"I've been having fun. I'm adjusting very well. I'm just happy that this is over with," Stinson said.

Stinson recalled Cychosz as a "very nice lady" who lived a few doors away.

"She minded her own business. She did a lot of work in her yard, and she collected a lot of cans (for recycling)," he said.

Stinson said he didn't worry about being interviewed a few times by police until they abruptly asked him to open his mouth one day and returned later with a subpoena to appear in court and provide a sample of his bite that experts could analyze.

"The technology they have today would have proved me innocent," Stinson said.

Bite marks questioned

In a statement issued Monday in the Robert Lee Stinson case, the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a program of the University of Wisconsin Law School, called bite-mark evidence a "flawed and highly unreliable form of evidence, with little scientific foundation. In recent years, erroneous bite-mark evidence has played a role in at least seven other wrongful convictions, which have later been overturned by DNA testing."


No comments: