Eyewitness testimony from a 7-year-old girl who saw her mother stabbed to death was the “linchpin” that put Rodney Lincoln behind bars for life for the April 1982 murder of a St. Louis woman.
The deciding factor for the outcome is now doubting her own story, and she wants her mother’s supposed killer to go free.
On Tuesday the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District denied Rodney Lincoln a writ of habeas corpus that would have forced a retrial of his 1983 conviction.
In the opinion filed Tuesday by the Western District, the court agreed with the Cole County’s June ruling that Lincoln’s Constitutional right to due process was not threatened because he was not on death row.
Lincoln’s attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project challenged the Constitutionality of Lincoln’s imprisonment using a 2003 case, State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper, in which Missouri man Joseph Amrine was wrongly convicted of a prison murder based on false witness testimony.
The Missouri Supreme Court ordered a retrial when three witnesses subsequently recanted their statements. Amrine was released after prosecutors declined to retry him.
In 1982, JoAnn Tate was found stabbed to death in her St. Louis apartment, lying face down in a pool of blood. Tate’s daughters, then aged seven and four, were found stabbed but alive. The testimony of the older sibling, Melissa Davis (who now goes by Melissa DeBoer) was key to finding Lincoln guilty of murder and two counts of assault.
A relative identified Lincoln, who used to date Tate, as a suspect based on a composite sketch of the killer made with the help of Davis. Davis picked out Lincoln in his mug shot, next to a picture of a distant relative, and later in a lineup.
After his first trial ended in a hung jury, Lincoln was sentenced a year after the murder to life in prison without parole.
Deboer’s first doubts about Lincoln’s guilt surfaced last year after she participated in a true-crime TV show that speculated whether serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, who had once lived in St. Louis, might instead have been the culprit.
Until the Missouri Supreme Court recognizes that “continued incarceration … of an actually innocent person violates principles of due process, we have no authority to presume that Missouri’s habeas jurisprudence permits such a claim in a non-death penalty case,” Presiding Judge Cynthia L. Martin wrote in the court’s opinion. Judges Gary Witt and Rex Gabbert concurred.
“Because the Missouri Supreme Court has not recognized a freestanding claim of actual innocence in cases where the death penalty has not been imposed, we are not at liberty to expand Missouri habeas jurisprudence to permit consideration of the claim in this case,”
“It’s hard to wrap your brain around, but as it turns out innocence is not a good enough reason to release a prisoner in Missouri,” Sean O’Brien, one of Lincoln’s attorneys, told KSHB on Tuesday.
More than faulty eyewitness testimony was allowed into Lincoln’s murder trial, Lincoln’s attorneys say.
In 2005, when Lincoln successively petitioned for DNA testing of the hair found at the scene of the crime, a lab determined that the hair did not belong to Lincoln. An expert witness had testified in Lincoln’s trial that DNA from a strand of hair found at the crime scene was a “match” to Lincoln’s.
In 2013 the Eastern District agreed with prosecutors who downplayed the significance of the hair for the conviction. The judge concluded that DeBoer’s testimony, not the discredited DNA evidence, was the “linchpin” that determined Lincoln’s guilt.
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DeBoer now believes serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells was the man who attacked her.
“When the veil fell from my eyes I was horrified,” DeBoer wrote in a November Facebook post announcing her belief in Lincoln’s innocence according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I have kept an innocent man in prison for 34 years … I did not know I was wrong but I was.”
Sells was convicted for the 1999 murder of a 13-year-old girl in Del Rio, Texas. Police connected him to at least 17 other killings, while Sells claimed credit for dozens more before he was executed in Texas in 2014.
When Lincoln’s daughter contacted a private investigator, he confirmed that Sells lived in St. Louis at the time of the murder.
When Lincoln petitioned for release from the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Cole County court in June, DeBoer appeared in court to recant her key childhood testimony fingering Lincoln as the murderer of her mother.
DeBoer said investigators manipulated her to accuse Lincoln, and that the experience had left her traumatized.
DeBoer’s sister, Renee Tate, who was unable to identify Lincoln in lineups in 1982, has since died from natural causes, leaving DeBoer the only survivor.
The Cole County judge didn’t find her change of opinion credible. He also noted that a jail log found by the prosecution indicated Sells was in juvenile custody in Arkansas at the time of the murder.
“[F]or a freestanding claim of actual innocence to support habeas relief, a petitioner must establish that his continued restraint is manifestly unjust because it violates the constitution or laws of the state or federal government,” the Western Court’s opinion says.
Unlike life imprisonment “executing an innocent person, in the face of clear and convincing evidence of innocence is a manifest injustice,” the Western District concluded.
Lincoln, now 72 years old, isn’t done fighting.
“I’ve lasted this long because I know I’m innocent. I want everybody in the world to know I’m innocent,” he told KSHB. “The confidence in the system has slipped some, but not the expectation that I will walk through that front door,” he said.
Lincoln’s attorneys are considering appealing to the Missouri Supreme Court, according to Missouri Lawyers Weekly.
“This cannot be the law of a just society,” the Midwest Innocence Project wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “We are not done fighting.”