On November 3, 56-year old George Allen had his conviction reversed by a judge in Cole County, Missouri. However, in a disappointing move, the state announced it is planning to appeal the reversal despite the prosecution’s statements that they were not going to retry Allen. The judge then granted the state’s request to keep Allen in prison while the appeal is pending. Does this story sound familiar? It should as, more often than we would like, states refuse to acknowledge that a conviction can be reversed based evidence supporting actual innocence. In addition, Allen’s case involved several recognized causes of wrongful conviction. Yet, the state’s actions keep the wrongfully convicted Allen imprisoned.
There was never any evidence against Allen and new evidence points to his innocence. In 1983, Allen was convicted for the 1982 rape-murder of a woman in St. Louis. At the time of the crime DNA testing was not available. Allen was picked up by police because he looked like another suspect they wanted to talk to. After questioning by detectives, he confessed. But there was no physical evidence like fingerprints presented to the jury that linked Allen to the crime. He was found guilty and sentenced to 95 years in prison.
However, attorneys from the Innocence Project and the law firm of Bryan Cave became involved and worked four years on Allen’s case. They found several pieces of evidence pointing to Allen’s innocence. First, Allen’s confession was suspect. His lawyer, Dan Harvath, told a local paper that: “If you listen to the tape recording of his confession and you look at his confession, Mr. Allen didn’t give a single fact that wasn’t fed to him,” Harvath said. He pointed to leading questions from a detective and added, “in certain instances, multiple questions were used before Mr. Allen would admit to a certain detail that it was clear the detective interviewing him was trying to get out of him.” This is a typical scenario seen in false confessions and is compounded by the fact that Allen suffers from mental illness.
The judge agreed and criticized lead detective Herb Riley for using threats and leading questions in a “deeply flawed” interrogation, resulting in a “dubious” confession. “The undisclosed evidence, considered together, points unavoidably to the conclusion that the police — and Detective Riley in particular — ignored and hid evidence pointing to someone else as the perpetrator in their zealous pursuit of Allen’s conviction,” the judge wrote.
Second, forensic science evidence points to Allen’s innocence. Forensic tests conducted by the St. Louis Police Department in 1982 were never turned over to the defense. These tests showed that Allen’s blood type differed from blood found at the murder scene. Also, DNA testing was done and did not match Allen. Finally, there are seven usable fingerprints from the crime scene that were never matched to anyone. At trial, police testified that all the crime scene fingerprints matched the victim, the victim’s boyfriend, or the police officer who responded to the crime.
The prosecutor issued a statement saying that “[a]lthough this event occurred three decades ago, I believe this ruling provides an opportunity today for lessons to be learned to ensure the rights of all people are protected.” However, the prosecutor doesn’t seem to have learned or understood the causes of wrongful conviction and how they tainted Allen’s conviction.
The new evidence of actual innocence itself should have been sufficient on its own for the prosecutor to make a decision not to retry Allen. But to no one’s surprise, the prosecutor based its decision on the age of the case. The prosecutor stood by the original verdict but said that witnesses were dead or would not be able to remember details. Apparently, the prosecutor would have liked to interview the fingerprint technician and detective Riley but both have passed away. Their action suggests that any evidence pointing to credible causes of wrongful conviction is not valid unless confirmed by someone. If that person denies any misconduct, then does that mean the original evidence must be credible? It is hard to believe this is the prosecution’s logic.
States have the right to appeal a judge’s decision. But where is the justice in continuing to imprison men whose convictions were overturned? Allen, like CIP clients William Richards and Daniel Larsen, the promise of freedom upon the reversal of their convictions ring hollow.