More than 23 years after his 1985 homicide conviction, a Milwaukee man, Robert Lee Stinson, is scheduled to appear in a Milwaukee courtroom this morning (July 27) at a hearing in which prosecutors have indicated they will drop all charges.
Stinson was released from prison in January based on new evidence of his innocence, after 23 years of wrongful incarceration. Stinson's attorneys at the University of Wisconsin Law School's Wisconsin Innocence Project and Assistant District Attorney Norm Gahn agreed that the new evidence — including new forensic analysis of bitemark evidence and new exculpatory DNA evidence — required setting aside Stinson's conviction. After agreeing to vacate Stinson's conviction, the state had six months to further investigate Stinson's case. Because that additional investigation has yielded more evidence confirming Stinson's innocence, the state has indicated that it will drop all charges today, confirming that Stinson was wrongly convicted of murder.
"We are thrilled that justice has been served today for an innocent man," says Byron Lichstein, the lead attorney on the case for the Wisconsin Innocence Project. "Lee has waited a long time for this day, and we are happy that he can begin to start his new life as a free man."
Stinson was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in 1985 based almost exclusively on evidence purporting to match his teeth to bitemarks found in the victim's skin. Since the time of Stinson's trial, four nationally recognized forensic odontologists — David Senn, Gregory Golden, Denise Murmann and Norman Sperber — independently evaluated the dental evidence and conclusively excluded Stinson as the source of any of the bitemarks found on the victim. In addition, male DNA found on the victim's sweater, in areas that tested presumptively positive for saliva, also conclusively excluded Stinson.
Since the conviction was vacated in January, further DNA testing has also excluded Stinson, as well as law enforcement officials who might have inadvertently left their DNA while handling the crime scene evidence. Additional police investigation has also revealed that Sinson was a quiet and gentle man whom witnesses believed could not and would not have committed such a heinous crime.
Faulty forensic science is one of the main causes of wrongful convictions, implicated in approximately 60 percent of DNA exonerations nationwide. Bitemark evidence, in particular, has been exposed by cases like this, as well as by a recent landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences, as a flawed and highly unreliable form of evidence, with little scientific foundation. In recent years, erroneous bitemark evidence has played a role in at least seven other wrongful convictions, which have later been overturned by DNA testing.
Stinson's long-awaited released came thanks to the hard work of several Wisconsin Innocence Project attorneys and law students, along with significant pro bono assistance from renowned California attorney Christopher J. Plourd, one of the nation's leading experts on forensic science evidence. The Stinson team is headed by Supervising Attorney Byron Lichstein, who worked with Wisconsin Innocence Project co-directors John Pray and Keith Findley; law students Michael Atkins, Adam Deitch, Sarah Henery, Brooke Schaefer, Brian Aleinikoff and Amy Vanden Hogen; and former law students Lanny Glinberg, Shelley Fite, Steve Grunder and Corinne Eggebrecht.