This article was originally published on April 3, 2018, in the Injustice Anywhere 2018 Spring Newsletter.
By supporters of Rodney Lincoln
The Rodney Lincoln case has had some promising moments in the last several years but all with disappointing results. As we approach the 36th anniversary of his arrest on May 23rd, he is still behind bars. 74 years old, in declining health, still proclaiming his innocence and still waiting for justice to FINALLY be served.
In 2013 Rodney was finally awarded a hearing to litigate the importance of exculpatory DNA testing. His attorneys at the Midwest Innocence Project had fought for years just to get the courts to allow the testing which finally took place in 2010. Results made public in November of that year proved that the only physical evidence used against Rodney at his trial had been false. The pubic hair found at the scene that was characterized at trial as a “match” to Rodney Lincoln could not possibly have come from him. A few more years of legal wrangling led to the evidentiary hearing finally taking place in September 2013. Rodney, his attorneys, and his family and friends were optimistic that this would lead to his wrongful conviction being vacated. Unfortunately, after several months, those hopes were dashed when St. Louis Circuit Judge Robin Vannoy released her decision on Christmas Eve denying relief. She stated that although the DNA clearly demonstrated the physical evidence used against him at trial was faulty, it was not enough to overturn the conviction; the physical evidence was not the lynchpin of the case and was merely cumulative to the eyewitness identification.
The Midwest Innocence Project appealed that decision in Eastern District Appellate Court and Oral Arguments were heard in November 2014. The Appeals Court rendered their decision affirming the circuit court decision a mere two weeks later. Rodney’s team petitioned for rehearing immediately and it was denied in January 2015 followed by a request to have the matter transferred to Missouri Supreme Court in February 2015 which was denied in March 2015.
Rodney’s attorneys started preparing a Habeas Corpus Petition to be filed in Cole County Circuit Court citing other problems in the investigation and trial that led to Rodney’s unjust incarceration.
As they were busily working on this new petition, Rodney’s daughter Kay was approached by a producer from a new television show called Crime Watch Daily that wanted to take a look at Rodney’s case in relation to a story they were doing about serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Sells’ name had been mentioned as someone who may have been the actual perpetrator of the crimes Rodney stood convicted of. His MO fit this crime, he had been in St. Louis at the time and had committed other murders with eerie similarities to the Joann Tate murder. As the show dug deeper into the Rodney Lincoln conviction their producers and investigators became convinced not only of his innocence, but in their belief that Tommy Lynn Sells had committed this murder and they presented that belief in their first ever one-hour exclusive show. As part of their investigative process, they also interviewed Melissa DeBoer, the now grown 7-year-old assault victim whose eyewitness testimony sealed Rodney’s conviction so many years ago. In her initial interview in the summer of 2015 she stated emphatically that it was Rodney Lincoln who killed her mother and brutalized her and her 4-year-old sister.
The show aired just before Thanksgiving on November 23rd, 2015. That Saturday on November 28th Melissa contacted Rodney’s daughter Kay through Facebook and expressed her belief that she had been mistaken all these years. After watching the show, and seeing crime scene photos for the first time, she started having horrible flashbacks and repressed memories began surfacing and she was now convinced that Tommy Lynn Sells was the man who had actually committed the horrific crimes against her family.
This startling revelation began a flurry of activity and there was actual hope that Rodney would be home by Christmas 2015. Rodney’s attorneys hurriedly included this new information in their developing Habeas petition. Melissa flew into St. Louis to meet with prosecutors and tell them in person that Rodney was innocent and that she wanted nothing more than to see him released. At first it seemed like maybe the prosecutors were willing to work with the attorneys and the families to get Rodney home but then the MO Attorney General took over the case, stating it was within their jurisdiction and that they would oppose any motion for release “as a matter of procedure”.
After both sides filed several briefs with the court, an evidentiary hearing was held in Cole County Circuit in front of Judge Daniel Greene on March 16 and 17, 2016. An extremely emotional Melissa testified at that hearing that Rodney Lincoln was innocent of the crimes that he was convicted of and that she, her mother and sister would not have justice until Rodney was released. Two other relatives of Joann Tate also testified that their family had always had doubts that the man convicted was the man responsible for the attack but felt they needed to stand behind Melissa. The state called no witnesses but did their best to discredit Melissa on cross examination. Judge Greene did not issue a decision for three months and then, heartlessly, released his decision on June 16th, 2016. On June 15, he had denied a motion filed by Rodney’s attorneys to allow him to travel to the funeral of his 23-year-old granddaughter who had been murdered in St. Louis earlier that week. As Kay and her family were at the funeral home holding a visitation for her murdered daughter, she got a phone call from Rodney’s attorneys letting her know that Judge Greene had literally signed the state’s proposed findings complete with misspellings and grammatical errors. He sat on the case for three months, did not even write his own opinion or acknowledge the evidence and testimony submitted, and issued a decision on the day when it could inflict the most pain. Both families were devastated at this outcome.
Rodney’s attorneys promptly filed an appeal with the Western District Appellate Court who issued a decision on October 11, 2016 stating that they could not consider the petitioner’s convincing claims of innocence because he was not sentenced to death. They opined that the Amrine claim that was the basis of the Habeas Corpus petition only applied to death penalty cases. The Amrine claim is based on the case of Missouri prisoner Joseph Amrine who was exonerated and released from Death Row based on showing all evidence from his conviction to be false and that no credible evidence of guilt remained. The Western district stated in their opinion that until the MO Supreme Court stated that the Amrine claim could apply to non-death penalty cases, they could not assume that it did. Rodney’s attorneys requested rehearing and transfer to the Supreme Court, which were denied in November 2016 and May 2017 respectively. Rodney also had yet another parole hearing in April 2017, at which Melissa again pled for his release. Parole was denied and he cannot apply for another five years. That was yet another decision with horrible timing. Rodney received the denial letter the day his children laid their mother to rest. In fact, the last two years have been wrought with pain and loss for Rodney, beginning with the murder of his granddaughter in June 2016. In October of that year his niece was murdered by her estranged husband, followed by the sudden death of his first love and best friend of over 50 years, Karen in November 2016. In early 2017 he lost another life-long friend and then his first wife and mother of his children in June, 2017.
Rodney’s attorneys are currently working on the next steps to be taken legally which have not been decided yet but could include filing a Habeas Corpus petition in federal court. Meanwhile, the MO Supreme Court has been considering another case very similar to Rodney’s. They appointed a Special Master to decide the case of David Robinson in February of 2017. In February of 2018 that Master issued his report recommending exoneration and stating unequivocally that the Appellate Court in Rodney’s case misinterpreted the meaning and intention of the Amrine opinion, stating that nowhere does the opinion dictate that it should only be applied to death penalty cases. This is not a final ruling by the court but if they do adopt Judge Missey’s recommendation, it seems that they would be paving the way for Rodney’s exoneration as well. It is very encouraging. But then, we’ve been optimistic before. It will definitely be interesting to see how the Robinson case plays out in the Supreme Court.
Rodney’s case was also recently the basis of an in-depth article by independent investigative journalist J. Malcom Garcia who spent several months in 2017 getting to know Rodney and his family as well as Melissa and her family. His article will be published online by Latterly Magazine in April 2018.
Please visit Rodney Lincoln’s Facebook Group to keep up with current events.