Prosecutors can't admit obvious in old murder case
This week was momentous for Andre Davis, who was freed after 32 years in prison when another man's DNA was linked to the 1980 Rantoul murder he was convicted of committing.
On Wednesday, Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz announced her office will not oppose Davis' request for a certificate of innocence. On Thursday, he started a new job with Chicago's Trinity Technology Services Inc., which sells heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment.
"(My first day) went well. I consider myself blessed just to have a job," he said.
But Davis, 19 when he was arrested and now 51, is still dogged by lingering wounds, which were rubbed raw by Rietz's announcement.
"There hasn't been any apology either to my family or to the Stickel family," Davis said, referring to the family of the murdered child, 3-year-old Brianna Stickel.
He won't be getting one anytime soon, at least not from the state's attorney.
While indicating that she does not have sufficient evidence to convict Davis of murder, Rietz suggested Davis is guilty and downplayed the DNA evidence linking another man, Maurice Tucker, to the crime.
"By (not opposing the innocence petition), we are not admitting the allegations of the petition itself and are not stating a position in favor of a finding of actual innocence," Rietz said in a written statement.
In a subsequent interview, Rietz said the new DNA evidence doesn't necessarily clear Davis and doesn't necessarily implicate Tucker. The DNA material was recovered from bedding on which the child's body was found and in a room of a house where Tucker lived.
"There is a reasonable explanation for why (Tucker's DNA) was found on his mattress cover, which is where the child was found," she said. "That is simply because it was his bed."
Rietz's statement about an innocent explanation for the DNA, however, conflicts with the scientific testimony a unanimous appellate court relied on to overturn Davis' conviction.
"The DNA expert's affidavit noted that the semen was mixed with the child's blood and, in some instances, it was on top of her blood on the bedding. He concluded the deposits of blood and semen could only have occurred at the same time. This testimony was not refuted by any other evidence," Justice James Knecht wrote for the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield.
Knecht's words that the blood and DNA were deposited "at the same time" leave no conclusion other than that the man who is the source of the DNA is the man who raped the child, bloodying her in the process.
Davis is not that man, and that's part of what his lawyer, Jane Raley of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, will argue before Associate Judge John Kennedy, who is presiding over Davis' innocence petition.
The law on innocence petitions is relatively new, and there are not many precedents. The hearing is civil, not criminal, and Davis must show by a preponderance of the evidence that he is innocent.
There is not necessarily an opposing party. The state's attorney or the attorney general can oppose, support or take no position on the petition.
That leaves the judge's role. Does the judge hold a hearing on the merits of the petition or simply grant it because it is uncontested?
Ironically, Circuit Judge Jeffrey Ford last week presided over another innocence petition hearing, one filed by Alan Beaman, a former Illinois Wesleyan student convicted of the 1993 murder of a former girlfriend, Illinois State University student Jennifer Lockmiller.
Beaman served 13 years before his conviction was overturned because prosecutors improperly withheld exculpatory evidence. When he filed a petition for innocence, McLean County prosecutors initially opposed it. But they withdrew their opposition after new DNA evidence linked two other unidentified suspects to Lockmiller's murder.
During last week's hearing, Judge Ford thought out loud about how to proceed. Ford said that because the attorney general's office did not intervene, "they are defaulted." Noting that McLean County prosecutors had withdrawn their opposition, Ford said "I believe I have the power to enter a default" against McLean County.
That, Ford said, left a case with a "pleading on one side and not on the other." Because there was no opposition, Ford said no further action was necessary, and he granted Beaman's certificate of innocence.
"That's how it needs to go," he concluded.
In addition to representing at least a partial restoration of reputation, a petition for innocence provides compensation for time spent behind bars. Beaman is eligible for roughly $175,000, while Davis is expected to receive the maximum allowable, roughly $200,000.
In the statement, Rietz also officially confirmed that her office has no interest in prosecuting Tucker for the Stickel murder.
"Passage of time has led to the loss of much of the physical evidence, and the death of some of the witnesses. Our review of the case led us to the conclusion that it would be impossible to retry this 30-year-old homicide case," she said.
Maurice Tucker currently resides in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Authorities found him when they conducted the DNA testing that led to Davis' release from prison.
The murder occurred in the early evening of Aug. 8, 1980, when Brianna and her brother went outside their residence at 1110 Eastview Drive to play. She disappeared within minutes, prompting her mother and father to conduct a frantic search.
The child's body ultimately was discovered next door at 1112 Eastlawn Drive, where Lutellis "Sonny" Tucker and his brother, Maurice Tucker, lived. The child's body was found in Maurice Tucker's bedroom.
Davis was arrested after a friend of the Tuckers, Donald Douroux, told police that Davis had told him that he had killed "a white woman" at the residence. Douroux said he went to the Tucker residence to check, encountering Brianna's parents. After some confusion, Douroux discovered Brianna's body and led authorities to Davis.
Davis always denied involvement, and he was eager to pursue DNA testing when it became available.
Another irony in the case is that it was scientific testimony, prehistoric by today's standard, that helped convict Davis at his trial. Testing of the semen revealed that Davis was among 20 percent of the population who could have been a source. Subsequent DNA testing conducted in 2004 excluded Davis as a source.
Prosecutors, however, fought for eight additional years to keep Davis behind bars. They argued the scientific evidence crucial to his original conviction now was irrelevant as proof of possible innocence.
But the appellate court concluded that the original serological evidence was "central" to Davis' conviction and described it as "not only misleading but false." The appellate court also noted that police swabbed Davis' body after his arrest and found no trace of blood or semen.
Prosecutors' earlier contradictory positions on the value of the DNA evidence as well as Rietz's latest statement about an innocent explanation for Tucker's DNA demonstrate once again how difficult it is for some prosecutors to admit error, even those made by others decades before.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.