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Case in Point

When the Star Witness Recants

The evidence against Rodney Lincoln has evaporated, but the courts say he’s out of luck.

The 7-year-old girl, known today only as “M.D.” in court records, had just endured an unspeakable tragedy. Her mother, JoAnn Tate, had been murdered before her eyes and M.D. and her little sister, age 4, had been gravely wounded in a sadistic sexual assault in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. M.D.’s uncle was the first person to reach the crime scene and he found M.D. hiding under the covers of her bed. “Who did this to you?” he screamed. “Bill,” she replied. It was April 27, 1982.

M.D. and her sister both required immediate surgery and extensive hospitalization. Waiting in the emergency room later that day, M.D. told a social worker about the crime scene and again identified her mother’s killer as “Bill.” At the same time, she told an older sister the same thing. While at the hospital, the 7-year old told detectives that “Bill” drove a white Volkswagen and lived in Illinois with his drunk mother. M.D. told her uncle that “Bill” had recently moved or travelled to Hollywood, that he “had black hair all the way to his ears,” and that he had been to their apartment three days prior to the murder to fix her mom’s car.

The police aggressively questioned the little girl during her hospital stay. They showed her many photographs but she identified no one, reiterating only that “Bill” had committed the crime. A few weeks later, in May 1982, they brought a sketch artist to her hospital room. By this time, M.D. had told the police that her assailant resembled a man named Dennis Smith, a friend of her uncle. When the sketch artist drew the sketch, however, the uncle told the police that the sketch resembled a man named Rodney Lincoln, who had had a brief affair with Jo Ann Tate about a year earlier and who lived about 11 miles from the crime scene.

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Now the police ratcheted up their questioning of M.D., while at the same time giving her candy and spending time with her, buying her dinners and ice cream. They were, she said three decades later under oath, “like dads.” Around this time, one of these “dads,” a detective, told her: “We got a magic door downtown… and we have to go look through this magic door and see if you can find the bad man. If we get the wrong man, we let the bad man go.” Then the detective, to whom M.D. had grown close, showed her two photos.

One photograph was of a man M.D. had known as a member of her older sister’s extended family. The other photograph was a mugshot of Rodney Lincoln. The detective told her “that the man who had murdered my mother was in the pictures and I had to pick out the bad man or he would go free. I picked the photograph of Rodney Lincoln,” M.D. would say in her testimony decades later, adding that she did so to please the “dads” who had spent so much time with her following the attack.

Within two hours, Lincoln, a man with a criminal record, had been picked up by the police and placed into a lineup with three other men, each of whom was much younger than him and with bushier hair. None of the other men resembled Lincoln or the sketch from which M.D. had identified him. M.D. identified Lincoln at this time although her younger sister, who also had been attacked, did not identify anyone. Based on the identification, the police were confident they had their man. But they still weren’t confident that M.D. would say so again, at trial, under oath, before a jury.

Lincoln was charged with capital murder and assault. There was M.D.’s identification and one bit of physical evidence that prosecutors said linked the defendant to the crime; a pubic hair sample taken from the room that an expert said matched Lincoln’s DNA. Lincoln’s lawyers defended their client by offering an alibi. They said he had been with his mother and girlfriend on the night of the attack and then showed up at work, on time, the next morning for his delivery job. His boss said he noticed nothing amiss.

The first jury to hear the case, in a trial held in August 1983, failed to unanimously agree that Lincoln was guilty of anything. The vote was 7-5 but the trial transcript from that proceeding is lost so there is no way to tell whether the jury was leaning to convict or acquit. A second trial was held in October 1983 and this time jurors convicted Lincoln of manslaughter. He was sentenced to life in prison and was sent away for more than three decades until an extraordinary development changed the narrative of the case.

Last November, M.D., by then 41 years old, was watching the television show Crime Watch Daily, a true-crime investigative series. The episode featured Tommy Lynn Sells, executed in Texas in 2014 for a series of murders, and it posited that Sells, not Lincoln, had murdered M.D.’s mother all those years earlier. As she watched the episode, M.D. came to believe that Lincoln was not the man who had attacked her and her family. “It was the mug shots of Tommy Lynn Sells. It was in particular the baby fat on his face and the cheek line, the stubble,” M.D. would later testify. “Because when I saw that, I like kind of had a flash of facial hair up against my face.”

M.D. was not the only character in this story who watched the episode. Nathaniel Clenney, M.D.’s uncle, the one who had first encountered M.D. at the crime scene in 1982, had begun to have serious doubts about Lincoln’s guilt years earlier. Last Thanksgiving, as he and his family watched the show, those doubts grew, so much so that M.D.’s cousin was prompted to reach out to Lincoln’s family to discuss ways in which they could help bring the case back before a court of law.

For decades, M.D. had opposed and resented the Lincoln family’s efforts to free Rodney. Now M.D. contacted Lincoln’s daughter and said, “I’m sorry,” over and over again. M.D. also reached out to local prosecutors to tell them she had made an awful mistake. That call was not nearly as heartening as the one she had made to the Lincoln family.

There were many things Rodney Lincoln’s trial lawyers did not know when their client went on trial, evidence that police and prosecutors failed to share with them despite the constitutional rule that requires the disclosure of exculpatory evidence by the government. For example, at trial and on appeal, prosecutors made much of the fact that both M.D. had reacted with visible emotion when identifying Lincoln and that she had “never wavered” in incriminating him. But records made available to defense lawyers 30 years after the crime indicate that M.D. and her sister both reacted that way to many different adult males during this time — including the prosecutor himself.

Rodney Lee Lincoln at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri in 2011.

Rodney Lee Lincoln at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri in 2011.

Likewise, prosecutors did not disclose to Lincoln’s lawyers the extent to which they coached M.D. about the testimony she would give. Lawyers coach their witnesses all the time, even though they technically are not supposed to do anything that alters the substance of the testimony. But M.D. was handled in a particularly smothering way. Newly-disclosed records reveal that prosecutors conducted half a dozen or more “courtroom rehearsals” with M.D. and her little sister, all designed to ensure that the girls incriminated Lincoln.

“It makes me feel terrible,” M.D. would later say of the extent to which she felt she had to identify Lincoln to please the adults back then.

Even before M.D. came forward to recant, Rodney Lincoln’s attorneys had succeeded in undermining the other major piece of evidence that helped convict him. In 2005, Lincoln’s current attorneys asked for new DNA testing on that pubic hair found at the crime it. It took nearly a decade but the new tests proved conclusively that he was not the source of the hair. Lincoln’s lawyers went to court to ask for his release but were denied. The DNA evidence, those Missouri courts ruled in 2014, was not “the determinative factor” in Lincoln’s conviction; M.D.’s identification was.

A year later, in 2015, M.D. recanted her identification, and Lincoln’s lawyers filed a new petition asserting his innocence. So there was no physical evidence linking Lincoln to the crime scene. And there was no star witness. At this point, the state’s attorneys faced a choice. They could have simply bowed to the new evidence and walked away from the conviction, which would have led either to a new trial or Lincoln’s outright freedom. Instead, they chose to defend the conviction by attacking the credibility of M.D., the victim whose credibility they had worked so hard to establish 34 years ago.

Now, the state’s attorneys argue, M.D.’s new version of events about her mother’s murder cannot be trusted because she had been subject to “false memories” brought on by a television show. Moreover, the state argues, M.D.’s family “came to the consensus that Lincoln was not the killer” and helped persuade M.D. that this was so. To undercut their former star witness, they assert that M.D. was “psychologically healthy” for many years as an adult, including a five-year stint in the Navy during which she had “top secret” clearance, and only recanted her testimony about Lincoln after she was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In their motion to gain Lincoln’s freedom, his attorneys pointed to Sells and others as plausible alternative suspects in the 1982 crime—a standard component of most “innocence” claims. Missouri argues that Sells could not have killed M.D.’s mother, or attacked M.D. and her sister, because he was in custody in Arkansas at the time of the crimes (though there is no documentary evidence that confirms his location on the night of the murder). And then the state argues that whatever the merits of Lincoln’s arguments he is procedurally blocked from making them because he waited too long.

In March, a trial judge held a hearing at which Lincoln’s witnesses all laid out their stories and the state presented its own evidence and version of events. M.D.’s new account simply was not credible, Missouri attorneys argued. Three months later, the trial judge, Daniel Green, signed the government’s proposed order without changing a word of it—without correcting the basic factual or grammatical errors in it or acknowledging any of the new evidence Lincoln had introduced.

Lincoln’s lawyers next asked a Missouri appeals court to overturn that judge’s ruling. The court refused to do so in an October ruling that offered two rationales for the decision. First, the appeals court ruled it didn’t matter if Lincoln could overcome the procedural barriers state attorneys had mentioned because he would lose on the merits of his claims (that police and prosecutors had withheld evidence, for example). Moreover, the court ruled that because Rodney Lincoln had not been sentenced to death, because his case is not a capital case, he has no right under Missouri law to assert a claim of innocence that could trump whatever procedural barriers existed.

Lincoln’s lawyers now have taken their case to the Missouri Supreme Court. The high court has not scheduled a hearing. As for M.D. she remains adamant in her belief that the wrong man is sitting in prison for a crime that has clouded the lives of two families.