Evidence lost and found

Call it the case of the reappearing evidence.

About nine years ago, the Innocence Project at Cooley Law School started looking for remaining evidence in the 1986 rape of a 9-year-old Detroit girl. Students and faculty at the Lansing school were representing Karl Vinson, the man convicted in the attack who had always maintained his innocence. 

At the time of his trial, DNA testing was not widely available. But Michigan law now allows prisoners to have evidence — when it exists and can be located — tested. 

Unfortunately in Vinson's case, the Detroit Police Department said the bedsheet and underwear collected from the scene had been destroyed, as is routine after several years. Children's Hospital of Michigan, where the victim was treated, didn't have the slide from the girl's rape kit.

"We were told by everybody, including the Wayne County prosecutor, that there were absolutely no samples and that everything had been destroyed," says Donna McKneelen, co-director of the Innocence Project at Cooley in Lansing.

But this summer, when Wayne County prosecutors asked, a slide was located at Children's Hospital.

"This opens up the bitter question of how seriously our requests for information are taken," McKneelen says. "It's very disturbing."

McKneelen learned of the slide's existence from David Moran, the co-director of the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan Law School. While the Cooley clinic works on cases where DNA evidence could be used to prove innocence, the Ann Arbor clinic handles cases without the relative luxury of such evidence.

When the Cooley team couldn't find anything with DNA to test in Vinson's case, Moran's group got his file.

In reviewing Vinson's case, the Ann Arbor students and attorneys found another scientific hole. At trial, prosecutors were armed with a report from the now-shuttered Detroit Crime Lab that said Vinson was a non-secretor, which means his blood type would not show up in his bodily fluids. That's why, the prosecutor said at trial, his AB blood type was not found on the sheet and the girl's underwear.

Earlier this year, Vinson provided saliva and semen samples that an independent lab tested. He's a secretor, those reports show, and as such his blood type would have been found in the evidence if he had been the rapist, Moran says. 

After Moran presented those findings to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy earlier this summer, her office wanted to investigate. That's when the slide was found. It was tested, and no DNA evidence could be collected from it, Moran says. That means it can't conclusively rule out Vinson or be used to identify the real assailant.

Vinson's case was making headlines last week because his attorneys have again filed a motion in Wayne County Circuit Court asking that his conviction be overturned based, in part, on the new secretor evidence. (See "Questionable Conviction," July 1). 

Judge Vera Massey Jones, the trial judge, has not scheduled a hearing and there is no deadline under law for her to do so.

Moran, meanwhile, has gone public with complaints about how Worthy's office has handled the Vinson matter. After discussing the case in private meetings for weeks, she is now stalling, Moran says.

News Hits tried to ask both Children's Hospital and Worthy's office about the case but got no responses by press time.

Meanwhile, McKneelen wonders how many other potentially innocent prisoners can't get an honest review of their cases because their attorneys can't obtain the evidence they need to test.

"It's certainly not in the public's interest," she says. "If you have someone on the street who committed rape or murder, and you have the wrong person sitting in prison for the crime, that's a real problem."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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