Fate of man imprisoned 29 years may rest on a strand of hair
BY JENNIFER MANN • firstname.lastname@example.org > 314-340-8315
Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011
ST. LOUIS • Rodney Lee Lincoln has spent nearly half his life in prison, and it shows.
His thin, pale body looks fragile. His ailments range from a heart arrhythmia to gout. His eyes are tired, his drawl slow and shaky as he talks about hopes dimmed over time.
Once this life is over, Lincoln, who is 66, will still owe the state another, plus 15 years, to satisfy his sentence for the killing of JoAnn Clenney Tate and the brutal assault on her two young daughters in St. Louis 29 years ago.
He's professed his innocence since his arrest, but the claim is not particularly unusual, or relevant, at the maximum-security Jefferson City Correctional Center.
"I'd done given up," he said in a recent interview there.
But he does have a chance.
Lincoln was convicted on the word of a traumatized little girl and his compatibility with a hair found at the crime scene. DNA testing recently showed the hair was not his. Now a judge will decide whether it's enough to free him.
It was a twisted road that put him in prison, and it's a twisted road that might lead back out.
When Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce's office reviewed about 1,400 pre-DNA-era convictions in 2003, Lincoln's was one of the original six chosen for testing to see if it would make a difference.
While the hair and other evidence would be analyzed, the real focus was scrapings from under Tate's fingernails — most likely to be left by the killer. But the scrapings were missing, and not found until last year during a routine audit of evidence. Testing proceeded at that point, but the material was degraded beyond use.
Joyce's office is now opposing Lincoln's motion for release, insisting the hair alone is not enough. Attorneys with the Midwestern Innocence Project, who took up Lincoln's case in 2005, argue otherwise.
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Robin Vannoy will decide this summer whether Lincoln will be the fifth man in St. Louis — and seventh statewide — exonerated by DNA technology.
It's a glimmer of hope that allows Lincoln, for the first time, to cautiously consider life outside razor-wire fences.
"The best description I can give you is I was in a hole and someone lifted the lid," he said. "It's way up there, but there's light."
JoAnn Tate's family called her "Jo-Baby." She was 35 and heavyset, with pale skin, brown eyes and jet black hair. She sold Avon cosmetics and played the piano and accordion at nursing homes.
She had been in a string of bad — sometimes abusive — relationships, her family said. She thought she could change men but apparently feared something: She slept with a hatchet under her mattress in an apartment in the 1400 block of Farrar Street, in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
About 4 a.m. on April 27, 1982, an upstairs neighbor heard a loud banging sound.
Tate's brother, Nathaniel Clenney, arrived about 10 a.m. with her boyfriend, Gerald Woodward, alarmed that she wasn't answering the phone. Tate was facedown in a pool of blood, fatally stabbed in the chest and sexually assaulted with a broomstick. Daughters Melissa, 7, and Renee, 4, survived grievous wounds. Melissa was stabbed about 10 times, and Renee's throat was cut. They were under blankets in their beds.
"It was a slaughterhouse," Clenney said recently. "You can't even imagine in your worst nightmare what I saw."
In shock, Clenney screamed at Melissa: "Who did this? Who did this?"
She replied in a small voice, "Bill did it."
It was a name she would repeat for weeks to detectives and hospital staff, at one point saying she had heard her mother call out Bill's name during the attack.
LOOKING FOR BILL
Tate's active dating history left much for police to explore. Detective Joe Burgoon, a legend among St. Louis homicide investigators, was one of those leading the way.
Melissa was eventually shown 38 photos, 17 of men named Bill or William. She dismissed them all.
Among the notable suspects was Henry Eugene Webb. He had pleaded guilty a year earlier to shooting Johnny Davis, Tate's then-boyfriend, in the throat and shoulder at a tavern on North 14th Street. Tate saw the shooting and, according to court documents, was on the list to testify against him. She wrote in her diary that a man named Bill participated.
Webb, who had a long history of felonies, was released to a St. Louis halfway house 12 days before Tate's murder. His court file has sparse detail about the shooting. Davis, who survived, said recently that he did not remember a Bill being there.
Among others checked were two ex-boyfriends with criminal histories: one who reportedly had been violent toward Tate and was in a financial dispute with her, and another named Billy. Both had alibis. Melissa didn't react to their photos.
Officials and family peppered Melissa with questions. On one occasion, she said, "They stabbed us." On another, a relative offered the name of another boyfriend and asked, "Was it Gary?" Melissa said yes, but later resumed calling the killer Bill.
Melissa eventually produced more details: The attacker drove a yellow cab. She, her sister and mother slept at his house in May, crossing a bridge to get there. He lived with his mother, who had cats and dogs, in a two-story, gray-shingled home across from a park with a merry-go-round. He lived near her father, who was in Cahokia.
Detectives searched for such a park and drove the girls to several. Each time, they said no.
FROM BILL TO ROD
After about a month, detectives got a break. Melissa gave the name of a family friend who she said looked like her attacker. A sketch artist worked with her, using that friend's face as a starting point. Tate's siblings said the composite resembled a man they knew as Rod. Burgoon found the name and number of a Rod in Tate's notebook. When he called, Rodney Lincoln's mother answered.
Burgoon learned that Lincoln and Tate were involved briefly the previous summer. Moreover, Lincoln, a driver for a grocer, had a record: two burglaries and a second-degree murder conviction for killing a man in a drunken fight in 1973.
Lincoln lived with his mother in the 8100 block of Minnesota Avenue, near a playground like Melissa described. Lincoln told police that Tate and her girls spent a night there the summer before.
Burgoon went to the girls with Lincoln's mugshot and a Polaroid of a distant relative. He remembers clearly Melissa's reaction: "She picked him out and said, ‘That's him.' I said, ‘Are you sure? His name is not Bill.' She said, ‘That's him.'?"
Renee threw down Lincoln's picture and covered her face.
Police arrested Lincoln as he was grilling pork steaks and drinking a Busch beer in his backyard. They put him in a lineup and Melissa chose him again. Renee took a look and buried her head into Burgoon's shoulder.
WHAT TO BELIEVE?
Lincoln offered his mother and a girlfriend as an alibi. Jurors in his first trial in August 1983 deadlocked. On Oct. 7, 1983, an all-male jury rejected a first-degree murder count and convicted him of manslaughter and first-degree assault, based mostly on Melissa's testimony.
"It's him," she testified, pointing at Lincoln.
But what about Bill? Melissa told the court she panicked and felt compelled to provide a name. Defense lawyers complained that the discrepancy cast doubt on everything she said.
There was almost no physical evidence. Experts testified a pubic hair from Melissa's bed could have belonged to Lincoln, or not. Police found nothing useful in fingerprints, blood stains or rape examinations. DNA testing would not come around for another nine years.
The Innocence Project says nearly 75 percent of the 271 DNA exonerations nationwide involved eyewitness errors at trial. In all four in St. Louis — three handled by the Midwestern Innocence Project and one argued independently — a victim identified someone later cleared by science.
Burgoon, now retired from the city and working cold cases for St. Louis County police, understands the skepticism but explained, "You work with what you've got."
He is confident Lincoln did it, noting Melissa was bright and articulate and had ample time to see the killer. "The kids were there, they said it was him," he said. "Children don't lie."
He said it was important to the police to get it right. "The last thing we want to do is put the wrong guy away."
THE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
In their motion for Lincoln's release, defense lawyers argue it was unfair for Burgoon to show just two pictures, only hours before a formal lineup. They point to inconsistencies in Melissa's statements and parts of her description of the attacker that don't match Lincoln. For example, Lincoln lived in south St. Louis, drove a green Ford station wagon and his mom owned one dog. And his name wasn't Bill.
Then there was the DNA test on the hair from the bed.
"You have to look at what this DNA exclusion means in connection with all the evidence," said Sean O'Brien, a board member at Midwestern Innocence Project and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "Is this a case that they could have made without the hair? The obvious answer in this case is no."
Under a 2001 statute for post-conviction DNA testing, Lincoln's lawyers have to prove by a preponderance of evidence he is innocent.
Ed Postawko, an assistant circuit attorney, insists they cannot. Since the hair was not known for certain to be that of the killer, the DNA does not exclude Lincoln, he said. He said the hair was never central to Lincoln's conviction.
But Lincoln's lawyers point out that in the second trial, the prosecution called more experts to speak to the hair — a sign they thought it was significant. Also, the recent DNA testing showed that a hair found on Renee — initially thought to be hers — did not belong to Lincoln or any of the victims.
Whether the judge can consider factors other than the DNA has been barely tested in court. In at least one state appeals court case, a judge ruled that the credibility of a witness should not be considered.
Of 20 city cases eventually accepted for DNA review, seven confirmed guilt, a fact that Joyce said doesn't get enough attention. In the four exonerations, evidence tested was linked directly to the actual perpetrator, such as semen from a rapist. The rest were inconclusive or are pending.
Postawko said when Lincoln's case was selected for testing, prosecutors had seen only trial transcripts and police reports and did not know what evidence was available to test.
"Nobody was talking about Rodney Lincoln until we identified him as meeting our criteria," Joyce noted.
WAITING FOR WORD
Melissa, now in her late 30s and living in Pennsylvania, declined to be interviewed. Her family said Lincoln's potential release dealt a heavy blow to her efforts to move on. Her sister, Renee, has died of ovarian cancer.
Daniel Clenney, one of Tate's brothers, only recently began talking about the attack.
"The murder broke up the whole family," he said.
He and other family members believe in their guts that Lincoln was guilty.
Lincoln's daughter, Kay, was 13 when he was arrested. Her mother, divorced from her father, shielded her from it. In the past decade, however, she has delved into his case and recruited the Midwestern Innocence Project to help. She points out that her father reported to work at 8 a.m. the day of the crime and had two young daughters of his own.
"They had a high-profile crime, they had a scared neighborhood and they had some traumatized, horribly attacked little girls," she said. "Instead of finding the person who committed the crime, they made the crime fit the person."
Lincoln only knows his four adult children through phone calls and visits. He has 17 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren he's never met.
He figures his criminal past made him a target.
Lincoln confessed to the 1973 murder, which he called "a terrible thing" and for which he served two years in prison. Lincoln said the man he killed — whose name he can't even remember — made sexual advances, and rage got the best of him.
"I paid my dues," Lincoln said, adding that he had vowed to get his life back on track after his release.
"Am I capable of killing? Yes, I've proved that," he said. "The crimes that I'm charged with now, killing a woman, child molesting? I can be a mean person. I'm not a freakish person, and there's a big difference."
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