Nearly 33 years after his arrest for the murder of a 3-year-old Rantoul girl, Andre Davis heard the word he's wanted to hear: innocent.
It came this week in an innocence petition approved by Judge John Kennedy, absolving the 51-year-old Davis of involvement in the death of Brianna Stickel, who was kidnapped from her front yard, raped and murdered. The finding is no surprise, considering that Davis was freed from a life sentence after another man's DNA was tied to the crime.
But don't tell that to Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz. She's madder than a wet hen over suggestions that Davis is innocent, even though she declined either to retry Davis for murder or challenge his innocence petition.
Rietz reiterated her suspicions this week, taking to WDWS radio to explain why she suspects Davis is guilty and the man whose DNA was discovered at the crime scene is not.
Rietz was responding to last week's column challenging her judgment on the issue. She charged the column "misses a number of key pieces of evidence."
It's a complicated case.
Brianna Stickel disappeared around 7 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1980. A couple hours later, her body was discovered in the bedroom of a house next door at 1112 Eastlawn Drive, where Lutellis "Sonny" Tucker and his brother, Maurice Tucker, lived.
Police focused on Davis, then 19, after another man, Donald Douroux, said Davis admitted killing "a white woman" at the residence. Davis' conviction was based on scientific testimony that included Davis among the 20 percent of the population who could have been the source of the semen stains discovered at the crime scene as well as testimony from four witnesses — Douroux, the Tucker brothers and Ida Parker — placing him at the crime scene.
Davis, a Chicago resident visiting his father in Rantoul, had spent the day there with the Tucker brothers.
In 2004, the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions requested DNA testing on semen and blood stains from the crime scene. A series of tests revealed that Maurice Tucker was the source of the DNA, not Davis.
Prosecutors fought to keep Davis in prison. But a state appeals court unanimously overturned his conviction, and Davis was released last summer.
Hindsight demonstrates police were fooled by lying witnesses and scientific testimony the appellate court described as "not only misleading but false."
Rietz, however, disagrees. She admits she can't prove it but argues Davis is guilty and Maurice Tucker is not.
She has an innocent explanation for Tucker's DNA. It was found in his bedding, and he could have left it there on some occasion prior to the child's death.
But her theory has a problem. Tucker's semen and Brianna Stickel's blood, which were found next to the child's body, were fresh. "Multiple witnesses testified to the presence of wet stains on the bedding described either as bloodstained or clear and sticky," the appellate court wrote.
"The DNA expert's affidavit noted the semen was mixed with the victim'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," the appellate court stated.
The obvious conclusion is that the child and Tucker were present at the same time — he the predator and she the prey.
But Rietz asserts the DNA test results are unreliable.
"The DNA evidence is something that was obtained by their (the defense) expert, Andre Davis' expert," Rietz said.
Rietz charged the examiner conducted an unreliable "eyeball" test before concluding the semen and blood were mixed together. She said she consulted with state experts who told her that there is "no test to show that one stain is on top of another stain, particularly after 30 years."
But Rietz's characterization of the DNA evidence is false. Three firms — Orchid Cellmark, Forensic Science Associates and Serological Research Institute — conducted the DNA testing.
Brian Wraxall of Serological Research Associates was the prosecution expert.
Joint findings from the three firms revealed a mixture of Tucker's and the child's DNA on the fitted sheet, flat sheet and mattress pad where the body was found. They were presented to the court in an eight-page "Joint Statement of Undisputed Material Facts" signed by Jane Raley, Davis' lawyer, and Steven Ziegler, Rietz's top assistant.
In other words, Rietz's first assistant accepted the DNA evidence Rietz disparages. The appellate court further stated that "this testimony was not refuted by any other evidence."
Obviously wrong on the DNA evidence, Rietz has another defense for Tucker.
"Maurice Tucker has an alibi," said Rietz, indicating Tucker "wasn't there" when the child was killed because he "left with a woman."
Rietz is correct that Ida Parker testified that she left 1112 Eastlawn with Maurice Tucker in the afternoon, well before the child was snatched. The state's attorney seems to find that dispositive. But "Parker said they all (the Tucker brothers and Andre Davis) left the house, with defendant (Andre Davis) leaving first," the appellate court wrote.
Rietz is cherry-picking Parker's testimony, citing Parker testimony that supports her theory and ignoring Parker testimony that doesn't.
Why would a prosecutor who swears allegiance to pursue justice do that?
Perhaps because it's easier to torture facts to get desired results than accept the fallibility of a legal system run by fallible people? Perhaps because knowing a child was brutally murdered and the wrong man imprisoned while the guilty man lives free in Minneapolis/St. Paul would make it hard to sleep at night?
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.