April 13, 2024

Prosecutor seeks to free Black man imprisoned 33 years for murder, citing evidence of innocence

3 min read

by JIM SALTER Associated Press

St. Louis’ top prosecutor has asked a court to set aside the conviction of a man who has spent 33 years in prison for a killing he says he didn’t commit, after witnesses who testified against him later said authorities had pressured them to lie.

In her request to overturn Christopher Dunn’s first-degree murder conviction, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner cited “clear and convincing evidence” that he had not been involved in the 1990 shooting death of Ricco Rogers.

“We are hopeful his wrongful conviction is set aside for the sake of Mr. Dunn, his family, and the people of the City of St. Louis,” Gardner said in a statement Monday.

Gardner filed a motion with St. Louis Circuit Court on Friday to vacate Dunn’s conviction. It wasn’t immediately clear if the state attorney general’s office would oppose the motion. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Andrew Bailey didn’t immediately respond to a Monday request for comment.

Gardner, a Democrat, succeeded in February in getting a court to set aside the conviction of another man, Lamar Johnson, who had spent nearly three decades in prison. Gardner took up his cause after an investigation her office conducted with help from the Innocence Project convinced her he was innocent in a 1994 killing. Johnson was convicted largely on the testimony of an eyewitness who later alleged that he had been coerced into his statements.

The overturning of Johnson’s conviction was a rare victory in a challenging year for Gardner, the city’s first Black prosecutor. She has been under fire for months from critics who contend that under her watch, too many cases, including homicides, have gone unpunished, that victims and their families are left uninformed, and that her office is too slow to take on cases brought by police. Bailey, a Republican who unsuccessfully sought to keep Johnson locked up, filed a court motion seeking her removal. Criticism escalated when recent cases had to be delayed because prosecutors from the understaffed office failed to show up in court.

Gardner said the attacks were politically and racially motivated. But she announced this month that she would resign effective June 1. Republican Gov. Mike Parson will appoint her replacement.

Dunn, 51, who is Black, was 18 when Rogers was killed. Among the key evidence used to convict him was testimony from two boys who were at the scene of the shooting. Both later recanted their testimony, saying they had been coerced by police and prosecutors.

A judge has heard Dunn’s innocence case before. At an evidentiary hearing in 2020, Judge William Hickle agreed that a jury would likely find Dunn not guilty based on new evidence. But Hickle declined to exonerate Dunn, citing a 2016 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that only death row inmates not those like Dunn sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole could make a “freestanding” claim of actual innocence.

A 2021 law now allows prosecutors to seek court hearings in cases with new evidence of a wrongful conviction. It has led to the freeing of another longtime inmate, Kevin Strickland, who served more than 40 years for a Kansas City triple killing. Johnson was the second inmate freed as a result of the new law.

Dunn’s attorneys at the Midwest Innocence Project say he should be the third.

“We are confident that when faced with such evidence, any Court will find, as Judge Hickle did nearly three years ago, that Christopher Dunn is innocent,” the group said in the news release.

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