Robert Lee Stinson spent more than 23 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, before DNA evidence finally exonerated him.  Now, thanks to an unprecedented decision by the Wisconsin legislature and governor, he will have substantially more compensation than others in the state have previously won.

Stinson was exonerated and freed in 2009 through the efforts of the University of Wisconsin’s Innocence Project.  After his release, Stinson sought compensation under the state’s innocent convict provision.   Authorities provided the maximum that current Wisconsin law allows to compensate him for his decades in prison.  But that maximum is only $25,000 – just over $1k for each year he wrongfully missed the company of his family and friends and the right to control his own life.

In voting for the maximum amount they could, the Wisconsin Claims Board also recommended that the state do much better, and last week the legislature and Governor Scott Walker came through with an additional $90,000.  Supporters hope that Mr. Stinson’s case opens the door for a wholesale reevaluation of how much Wisconsin compensates its wrongfully convicted people.

Stinson’s wrongful conviction stems from the 1984 rape/murder of Ms. Ione Cychosz in a vacant lot near her home in Milwaukee, WI. The science of DNA testing was not available at the time, and the only physical evidence that alleged tied Stinson to the crime was based on so-called “bite mark forensics,” a new and largely untested detective technique.

Ms. Cychosz had a bite mark on her body which seemed to indicate that her assailant was missing one of his front teeth. Police detectives canvassing the neighborhood noticed that Mr. Stinson, whose property abutted on the vacant lot, was missing one of his front teeth and eventually arrested him for the murder.

Stinson has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the detectives along with Dr. Lowell T. Johnson and Dr. Raymond Rawson conspired to frame him for the Cychosz murder.

Dr. Lowell Thomas Johnson testified at Stinson’s criminal trial that the bite mark on Ms. Cychosz’s body “had to have been made by teeth identical” to Stinson’s teeth.  But no reputable scientist would make such an extraordinarily sweeping claim for the results of a test in a well-established branch of science, let alone one with as skimpy a track record as bite mark forensics.  And as the National Registry of Exonerations noted, “There was no other direct evidence linking him to the murder.”

Thanks to the work of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Stinson is now a free man.  In 2005 they began arranging to have the biological evidence found on the victim’s clothing DNA tested, which ultimately excluded Stinson as a suspect.  Then, they went one step further, hiring a panel of four forensic dental experts who re-examined the bite mark evidence and concluded that Stinson’s teeth did not match the bitemark injuries found on the victim’s body.

Buttressing the Innocence Project’s work was a ground-breaking 2004 investigative series [2] [3] [4] by the Chicago Tribune which called into question the whole alleged “science” of bite mark forensics, using the then-new DNA science which “injected a dose of truth serum into other forensic tools.”

A 2009 article by Tribune investigative reporter Steve Mills made Mr. Stinson’s case the centerpiece of its debunking of previously sacrosanct bite mark expert testimony.

Since Stinson’s conviction, “bite-mark comparison has come under withering scrutiny,” wrote Mills. “A 2004 Tribune series, ‘Forensics Under the Microscope,’ showed that even the discipline’s leading experts later have been proven wrong by DNA evidence…. The Tribune in its series also examined 154 cases involving bite-mark comparison, mostly murders and rapes, that reached appeals courts around the country and found that, in more than one-quarter of the cases, forensic dentists for the prosecution and defense gave diametrically opposed opinions.”

Speaking of alleged experts, DePaul University Law Professor Terrence Kiely noted that “It’s the white coat-and-resume problem.  They’re very, very believable people. And sometimes the jurors will take [their testimony] as a ‘yes,’ where the science can only say it’s a ‘maybe.'”

To put a finer point on it, highly-educated expert witnesses with impressive-sounding credentials can speak to juries with a seeming authority that may be unfounded in light of a dispassionate look at the real state of the science.

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