The DNA match with another individual supports Stinson’s longstanding claim of innocence, says Byron Lichstein, an attorney for the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, which worked on Stinson’s case and pushed for further DNA testing to help establish the perpetrator’s identity.
DNA found on the victim has been matched to a repeat offender in the convicted offender databank. Following this DNA “cold hit,” detectives interviewed the individual, who made incriminating statements about his role in the crime. An investigator working on Stinson’s civil rights case then interviewed the person whose DNA matched that at the crime scene, and that person has signed a written confession in the presence of a notary, Lichstein says.
That person, who is serving a long sentence for a different crime, has not yet been charged for the murder that led to Stinson’s incarceration.
“I hope,” says Stinson, “that justice can finally be done.”
Stinson was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in 1985 based almost exclusively on a bite mark analyst’s testimony that the bite marks on the victim “would have to have been made by Robert Lee Stinson” with “no margin for error.”
In 2009, at the request of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, four nationally recognized forensic odontologists independently evaluated the dental evidence and conclusively excluded Stinson as the source of any of the bite marks found on the victim, largely because Stinson was missing a tooth in a place where the perpetrator clearly had a tooth.
Attorneys and law students at the Wisconsin Innocence Project also pursued DNA testing of the victim’s clothing in areas that tested positive for saliva. With the prosecution’s agreement, the State Crime Laboratory performed DNA testing and developed DNA profiles excluding Stinson.
Stinson’s exclusion from the DNA, combined with the new bite mark analysis, were eventually sufficient to overturn his conviction and require his release.
“We knew someone had committed this crime,” Lichstein says, “and we didn’t want him or her walking the streets.”
There was, however, one problem. Original profiles could not be run through the convicted offender databank. The Wisconsin Innocence Project paid for additional testing at a private laboratory, Orchid Cellmark, which successfully developed a DNA profile that could be run through the databank.
Lichstein says he hopes Stinson will be compensated to the full extent available under the law for his wrongful conviction.
“Though nothing can make up for the 23 years he lost, our system should do what it can to make this right,” Lichstein says. “Lee has been out for more than a year and has received nothing. He should be compensated as much as possible under the law, as soon as possible.”
Lichstein also says that Stinson’s case demonstrates the need for systemic reform of the forensic sciences, such as bite mark identification. Faulty forensic science is one of the main causes of wrongful convictions, implicated in approximately 60 percent of DNA exonerations nationwide. A recent landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences describes the problems with forensic sciences and calls for reform in several areas.
The best way to address these kinds of mistakes is to prevent them from happening in the first place, but that can only occur if the criminal justice system makes changes when obvious problems are exposed, Lichstein says.
“Cases like Stinson’s – especially in light of the National Academy of Sciences report-make clear that changes in forensic science are necessary,” he says. “Wisconsin officials should answer the call for reform in order to ensure that our system convicts the guilty, and only the guilty.”
Stinson is currently represented in seeking compensation by Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago-based firm focusing on civil rights, with particular expertise in wrongful conviction cases.
He was represented in challenging his conviction by faculty and students from the Wisconsin Innocence Project of the Frank J. Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School. The project received crucial assistance from California attorney Christopher J. Plourd, one of the nation’s leading experts on forensic science evidence, and four forensic odontologists, Drs. David Senn, Gregory Golden, Denise Murmann and Norman Sperber.
CONTACT: Byron Lichstein, (608) 265-2741, firstname.lastname@example.org