ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A St. Louis man’s bid to win his freedom more than three decades after he was given two life sentences in a woman’s 1982 killing will likely come down to a few strands of hair found at the crime scene.
Rodney Lee Lincoln was convicted in 1983 of manslaughter and first-degree assault in the stabbing death of JoAnn Tate, 35, of St. Louis and slashing attacks on her daughters, then ages 4 and 7. The case was among those that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce chose a decade ago for further scrutiny and DNA testing, which did not exist at the time of Tate’s death.
Subsequent genetic tests on several bloody knives and a bloody fingerprint inside Tate’s apartment found no male DNA. A pubic hair found on one of the children’s blankets didn’t belong to Lincoln, nor did another foreign hair retrieved from one of the girl’s genitals.
Lincoln, now 69, returned to court Thursday for a brief hearing before Circuit Judge Robin Vannoy, who’s considering a request by his attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project. The lawyers want the convictions thrown out and Lincoln released from a state prison in Jefferson City.
The judge didn’t immediately rule on the request, but said she hopes to do so soon.
“We can’t hold onto a conviction out of desperation,” defense lawyer Laura O’Sullivan said. “When the evidence proves he is not the perpetrator, we have to release him. ... The expert testimony is clearly proven to be false.”
O’Sullivan was referring to an expert witness who previously testified that the hair found on the child’s blanket matched Lincoln. Prosecutors countered that the evidence supporting Lincoln’s guilt goes beyond the forensic evidence.
“It’s not just the existence of one item,” said Ed Postawko, an assistant circuit attorney. “It’s the context of that piece of evidence. ... DNA doesn’t automatically appear at every crime scene.”
The state had hoped to find DNA evidence from scrapings recovered beneath Tate’s fingernails, but the samples were too degraded for testing.
The crime was especially heinous: Tate was stabbed in the chest and sexually assaulted with a broomstick, while 7-year-old Melissa was stabbed roughly 10 times and 4-year-old Renee had her throat cut.
Melissa initially identified a man named Bill as the attacker, but later picked Lincoln out of a police lineup. She attended Thursday’s hearing but declined comment. Her sister died of cancer.
“We just want this to be over with,” JoAnn Tate’s brother, Nathaniel Clenney, said. “We’re just tired.”
The hearing was initially scheduled to take three days, but was shortened considerably after Vannoy limited testimony to the DNA evidence. At its conclusion, Lincoln was allowed to spend about 20 minutes visiting with the two dozen relatives who came to show him support. They included his four children and many of his 15 grandchildren—and several great-grandchildren he had never met.
“We’re just grateful,” his son, Rod Lincoln of St. Peters, said.
Of the more than 1,200 inmates exonerated nationwide since 1989, 24 have been Missouri prisoners, according to a national registry of wrongful convictions maintained by the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University.
DNA evidence was a contributing factor in 10 of those Missouri cases. Six of the cases were in St. Louis, with each exoneration occurring in the past decade. Mistaken witness identifications played a role in all but one of those cases.
Lincoln’s first trial in Tate’s death ended in a hung jury. Before that, he served two years of a 10-year sentence and then was paroled after being convicted of second-degree murder in 1973.