Three of 11 wrongful convictions in Oklahoma overturned by DNA tests remain unsolved, and it’s not clear whether authorities have enough evidence to identify the real perpetrators, according to a review of cases by Oklahoma Watch.
Not finding the real offender after an exoneration by DNA is an issue found across the country, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit group that pushes for using DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Of the 316 DNA exonerations to date in the United States, more than half, 163, have not resulted in a suspect being identified or convicted, the group reports.
Oklahoma has seen the real perpetrators convicted or implicated in more than two-thirds of its 11 DNA exonerations — a success rate attained despite the state’s relatively high rate of wrongful convictions. The 11 wrongfully convicted men, several of whom spent time on death row, represent 3.5 percent of DNA exonerations nationwide, or nearly three times Oklahoma’s share of the U.S. population.
Sixteen other people in Oklahoma have had convictions overturned for reasons other than DNA evidence, including mistaken witness identification and false confession, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
An example of a DNA exoneration is the case of Robert Lee Miller, who spent several years on death row for the 1986 murders and sexual assaults of two elderly women in his Oklahoma City neighborhood. DNA tests excluded Miller of the crimes in 1998 and pointed to another man, Ronald Lott, who was convicted and then executed on Dec. 10, 2013.
In at least three other Oklahoma cases, another suspect has never been identified, and the DNA evidence has not been run for various reasons.
In wrongful-conviction cases, it’s not unusual for police and prosecutors to never look into an alternative suspect, said Edmond defense attorney Jack Fisher.
“There’s not really much of an effort to go find someone else,” said Fisher, who’s worked on two high-profile Oklahoma cases in which defendants who claimed they were innocent were released from prison.
Fisher worked on the case of Curtis McCarty, convicted of the 1982 murder of 18-year-old Pamela Kaye Willis in Oklahoma City. McCarty, who spent 21 years behind bars and several years on death row, had been convicted based in part on faulty hair evidence later discredited by testing of DNA on various pieces of evidence, and was released in 2003.
No other suspect has been arrested in the case.
Dexter Nelson, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City Police Department, said the DNA evidence in the case was tainted because of involvement by former Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, whose testimony on forensic findings in many cases was found to contain serious errors.
Fisher also worked on the exoneration of David Johns Bryson, released from prison in 1999 after DNA evidence excluded him as the rapist in a 1982 Oklahoma City case. Bryson also was convicted based on forensic testimony from Gilchrist.
Nelson said Oklahoma City police consider the Bryson case closed because the statute of limitations on rape cases, 12 years, has long passed.
The outcome is similar in a third case, that of Sedrick Courtney, who served 15 years in prison and a year of parole after he was convicted of armed robbery in 1996. Courtney was convicted after the victim identified him as her assailant, despite several family members corroborating his alibi. In 2012, he was exonerated through DNA tests on hair left at the scene.
Afterward, the case was not reopened because robbery has a three-year statute of limitations in Oklahoma, Tulsa police Sgt. Brandon Watkins said.
At least one wrongful-conviction case not involving DNA has the potential to be solved.
Greg Wilhoit, formerly of Tulsa, was convicted on charges of killing his wife, Kathy Wilhoit, in 1985 and was sentenced to death. He spent seven years in prison.
Wilhoit, whose case is included in John Grisham’s non-fiction book “An Innocent Man,” was released from prison in 1993 after a judge ruled that bite-mark evidence used to convict Wilhoit was erroneous and there was not enough evidence to warrant a new trial. No other arrests have been made.
“I’d love to find out who did it,” said Wilhoit, who now lives in California. But during the initial investigation and after his exoneration, he believes police “decided not to look at anyone else.”
Tulsa Police Det. Eddie Majors, however, said the Wilhoit case remains open and the department is following up on leads. Majors did not go into detail except to say police are looking at a possible link between another case and the Wilhoit murder and are awaiting lab results. News reports on the Wilhoit murder have mentioned a cigarette butt and a fingerprint as evidence.
“This is an ongoing investigation … We’re still looking into it,” said Majors, who continues to meet with the family of Kathy Wilhoit.
Failure to Follow Up
Part of the issue in finding real perpetrators after an exoneration is a lack of follow-up on DNA hits, said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who studies wrongful convictions.
“Many police agencies do not have procedures in place for what to do when there is a match to a cold case, or a closed case,” Garrett said.
Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, said he thinks the lack of follow-up is due more to a failure of the criminal justice system to admit a mistake.
“Convicting the right person just reinforces how wrong they were the first time,” Warden said.
In many of the cases he’s worked on, Warden said police and prosecutors still believe the original suspect committed the crime, despite the overturning of a conviction and compelling DNA evidence.