Deconstructing the Paradox of the Constitutional Incarceration of Innocent Citizens.

AuthorCharles, Rebecca

    Missouri is not sure whether it is a manifest injustice or a violation of due process to continue incarcerating an innocent person, even for life. (1) This is a shocking notion for average citizens who expect the criminal justice system to exact justice accurately and fairly. Much of judicial precedent is not entirely intuitive to ordinary citizens, and yet lawful incarceration of innocents is a paradox that moves beyond unintuitive to alarming. Rodney Lincoln's story epitomizes many of the most alarming aspects of this paradox.

    In 1985, Rodney Lincoln was convicted of the brutal assault of two young girls and the murder and assault of their mother. (2) In the more than thirty years following his convictions, the already feeble evidence used to incarcerate Mr. Lincoln crumbled. (3) With no evidence remaining to support his conviction, Mr. Lincoln petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge his continued detention. (4) He was unsuccessful. (5) The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District denied Mr. Lincoln's petition, perpetuating the convoluted and flawed precedent that governs the legal procedures of habeas corpus. (6)

    Habeas corpus is a procedural safeguard that allows an individual detained by a government to challenge the legitimacy of his detention. (7) While the exact parameters of habeas corpus vary across jurisdictions, its common underlying premise provides for release of a detainee when his detention violates the law. (8) No court binding the Missouri Court of Appeals has ever determined that the incarceration of an innocent person is unlawful.

    While plenty of precedent exists to conclude that such a detention violates fundamental fairness, the Western District in In re Lincoln v. Cassady was unwilling to make such a finding without the prior blessing of the Supreme Court of Missouri. (9) As a result, there is no procedural pathway for a convicted and incarcerated person sentenced to anything short of death to convincingly demonstrate his innocence and obtain relief under Missouri law. For Mr. Lincoln, who received two consecutive life sentences plus fifteen years, this lack of a procedural pathway made the absence of evidence remaining to support his conviction irrelevant. (10)

    Courts upholding the position that habeas corpus cannot remedy the incarceration of an innocent person flaunt finality as a compelling justification for denying relief. (11) Respect for the finality of judgments and convictions lends stability, efficiency, and legitimacy to the courts. But finality is an unconvincing justification for affirming a conviction when the convicted is ready and able to prove his innocence. Courts also rely on executive clemency to clean up the injustice that results from this position. As the chief executives of their jurisdictions, governors have statutory authority to grant pardons and commute sentences through clemency. But clemency is an ineffective solution when examined critically against the massive injustice that results from wrongful convictions left undisturbed.

    Part II of this Note explains the facts and procedural background of Rodney Lincoln's convictions for manslaughter and two counts of first-degree assault. Part III outlines the legal background relevant to the court's ruling, including the expansion of habeas corpus to freestanding claims of actual innocence and the inapplicability of that expansion to non-death penalty cases. Part IV details the court's ruling in Mr. Lincoln's case, which acknowledged Mr. Lincoln's compelling case of innocence but could not grant habeas relief due to procedural barriers. Part V explains the insufficiency of finality as a justification for perpetuating the procedural barriers to habeas relief and the inadequacy of the court-endorsed remedy of executive clemency to cure the consequences of those barriers. It then offers concrete solutions to the procedural gap that allows innocents to be lawfully and constitutionally detained, even for life.


    On the night of April 27, 1982, a man entered the home of JoAnn Tate. (12) The man assaulted and murdered Ms. Tate before he turned his attention to her two daughters, Melissa, age seven, and Renee, age four. (13) The "bad man," as Melissa would later call him, sexually assaulted and repeatedly stabbed both girls before he left. (14) Concerned that no one had heard from her the morning after the assault, JoAnn's brother and boyfriend both set out to check on her. (15) Upon arriving at her apartment, the two men discovered the horrific crime scene. (16) That morning, Melissa told them the man who committed the assaults had also worked on her mother's car recently. (17) She called him "Bill." (18) She also told authorities the man drove a white Volkswagen. (19)

    As investigators attempted to identify a suspect for the crimes, they repeatedly asked Melissa for additional information about her assailant. (20) Eventually, law enforcement created a composite drawing of a suspect based on Melissa's descriptions. (21) A few of JoAnn's relatives thought the composite resembled one of JoAnn's old romantic interests, Rodney Lincoln. (22) A detective met with both girls to view a photographic lineup and a live lineup that included Lincoln. (23) Both the lineups were conducted in a highly suggestive manner using techniques that are considered unreliable today. (24) The detective told the girls that he had a magic door the "bad man" was behind. (25) He also told them the "bad man" was in one of the pictures and emphasized that it was important to pick a photo so the "bad man" would not go free. (26) The photographic lineup contained only two photos: an outdated mugshot of Mr. Lincoln and one of the girls' relatives, who was another person of interest. (27) At only four years old, Renee would not look at the photos. (28) Seven-year-old Melissa picked Mr. Lincoln. (29) Later the same day, Melissa was presented with a live lineup of four individuals--Mr. Lincoln and three men who looked remarkably unlike him. (30) Mr. Lincoln was the shortest in the lineup and was thinner than his co-suspects. (31) His hair was short and clean cut while the others had longer, shaggy haircuts. (32) All of the men had varying facial hair. (33) Melissa identified Mr. Lincoln just as she had in the photographic lineup. (34)

    At trial, when Melissa was called to testify, she smiled at Mr. Lincoln and even moved towards him on her way to the witness stand. (35) This behavior discredited the notion that Mr. Lincoln was the perpetrator of a violent assault on the little girl and contributed in large part to a hung jury. (36) Before the retrial, prosecutors and social workers coached Melissa extensively on her testimony. (37) Department of Family Service ("DFS") records would later reveal that following her attack, Melissa identified most men in her life as the "bad man." (38) Melissa remembers that she was coached to stop saying her attacker was "Bill" and to identify Mr. Lincoln instead. (39) She received so much coaching that Mr. Lincoln was the "bad man" that she now believes her memory was altered. (40)

    At the second trial, the substantive evidence against Mr. Lincoln consisted of Melissa's more polished eye witness identification and expert testimony concerning a pubic hair found on a blanket in JoAnn's room. (41) The expert testified that the hair "matched" Mr. Lincoln's. (42) While hair testimony of this nature was once acceptable in a court proceeding, the "science" of hair matching has been debunked so extensively that expert testimony concerning hair "matches" is no longer admissible evidence at trials. (43) At the close of the second trial, the jury convicted Mr. Lincoln of manslaughter and two counts of first-degree assault. (44) He was sentenced to fifteen years on the manslaughter count and life imprisonment on each assault count, with each term to run consecutively. (45)

    On direct appeal to the Western District, Mr. Lincoln argued the trial court abused its discretion when it found Melissa competent to testify. (46) To determine Melissa's competency, the trial court applied a four-part test to discern whether she possessed:

    (1) [a] present understanding of or intelligence to understand, on instructions, an obligation to speak the truth; (2) [the] mental capacity at the time of the occurrence in question truly to observe and to register such occurrence; (3) memory sufficient to retain an independent recollection of the observations made; and (4) capacity truly to translate into words the memory of such observation. (47)

    Mr. Lincoln's argument rested on the notion than an eight-year-old (Melissa's age at the time of trial) could not retain an independent recollection of her observations of an incident. (48) The Western District noted the trial court correctly implemented the four-part test to determine Melissa's competency to testify. (49) Because the trial court applied the correct test, the Western District granted deference to the trial court's finding without further explanation. (50) Mr. Lincoln's conviction could not be disturbed, as the trial court's finding of competency was not an abuse of discretion. (51)

    In 2012, thirty years after the original crime, Mr. Lincoln secured DNA testing of the pubic hair identified as a "match" to him at trial. (52) The DNA tests proved conclusively that the hair did not belong to Mr. Lincoln. (53) However, the court reviewing the DNA results (the "DNA court") concluded the pubic hair was not the "determinative factor" in Mr. Lincoln's conviction. (54) Because the court viewed Melissa's eyewitness testimony as the linchpin in the convictions, it found the DNA test did not establish Mr. Lincoln's innocence. (55) His request to be released was denied. (56)

    In 2015, after viewing a Crime Watch Daily episode about her mother's murder and the assaults on her and her sister, (57) Melissa recanted her eyewitness identification of Mr...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT