On the evening of February 4, 1982, the naked body of 31-year-old Mary Bell, a St. Louis Circuit Court reporter, was found stabbed to death next to her bed in her St. Louis, Missouri apartment. She had been sexually assaulted.
A bloody knife was found wrapped in a towel and stuffed in a cooler inside of a closet near the front door.
Police determined that a friend, Pamela Ann Richardson, had called her that morning and said she would come by the apartment. Richardson told police that Bell said she had just gotten out of the shower and was putting on her robe. When Richardson arrived, no one answered the door and she left.
Police found blood and other biological evidence on Bell’s robe, the floor and on her body. She had been stabbed 19 times.
Kirk Eaton was an initial suspect because he recently had been released from prison after serving time for a rape conviction, he had been seen near the apartment complex where Bell lived and his brother lived in the same complex as Bell. Shortly after the murder, however, Eaton disappeared.
On March 14, police officers saw 26-year-old George Allen Jr., a diagnosed schizophrenic, walking several blocks from Bell’s residence and stopped him because they thought he resembled Eaton. He was taken to a police station where an officer in the police sex offenses division interviewed him. During questioning, he said had previously forced women to have sex with him and then denied it. He said he had committed rapes in the projects near where Bell lived—and then denied.
The officer felt Allen was unreliable and she ended the interview. The arresting officers also contacted Herbert Riley, a detective in the homicide division, who was investigating the Bell murder. Riley began questioning Allen and ultimately obtained a tape-recorded statement during Allen confessed to the crime. Allen also told Riley during the interrogation that he was mentally ill, that he was intoxicated at the time of the interrogation and that he was innocent.
At the time of the crime, Allen lived in University City, Missouri, about 10 miles from Bell’s apartment. At that time, St. Louis was attempting to dig itself out of a 20-inch snowstorm that virtually paralyzed the city and police were never able to explain how Allen could have made his way to Bell’s apartment.
Allen was charged with capital murder, sodomy, rape and first degree burglary. He went on trial on April 20, 1983 in Cole County Circuit Court.
Riley testified that Allen provided police with two details that they did not know about prior to the interrogation. Allen said that while he was in Bell’s apartment, someone banged on the front door and called the name “Sherry” or something similar and that he thought it was a neighbor because he heard a door open and close.
Pamela Richardson testified that when she came to the apartment as she had promised in the phone call to Bell, she knocked on the door and heard “muffled bumping sounds” inside. She said she called out, using Bell’s first name, Mary, two or three times and then left when there was no answer.
Sandra Salih, a neighbor who lived next to Bell, testified that sometime after 10 a.m., she heard screams from Bell’s apartment. After the screams stopped, she heard knocks on the door. When she opened, she saw a woman, presumably Richardson, leaving.
A forensic analyst testified that Allen could not be eliminated as a suspect based on blood tests performed on the evidence. The analyst testified that the only antigens recovered from seminal fluid at the scene were A and H antigens, which could not exclude Allen as the source of the semen. There was no other physical evidence linking Allen to the crime.
A fingerprint examiner testified that 27 fingerprints had been recovered from the home. Nineteen of the prints belonged to Bell’s live-in boyfriend, who discovered her body. The other belonged to a police officer at the crime scene. The other seven were “of no value” because they did not have enough features to compare to other prints.
Allen testified at a pre-trial hearing and denied involvement in the crime. He said he was home on the day of the crime and family members testified that he was there and helped a sister dig out her car after it became stuck in the snow.
Allen said that he falsely confessed because he was convinced by Riley that they had evidence against him, that his claim of innocence was futile and that he had no choice but to admit to the crime.
The defense attacked the confession as false because Riley used highly leading questions that incorporated details about the crime. In the few instances when Riley asked Allen an open ended question, Allen made statements that were not consistent with the crime. Allen said it occurred at night, when it occurred in the morning. He said he hit Bell with his hand, but there was no evidence of blunt force injury on the victim. He said the victim was 20 or 25 years old when she was actually 31. He said if he stabbed the victim, it “had to be on her chest” although Bell was stabbed in the back and neck.
On April 22, a mistrial was declared after the jury deadlocked, voting 10 to 2 to acquit.
Allen went on trial a second time on July 18, 1983 and he was convicted on July 25 of capital murder, rape, sodomy and first degree burglary. Because one of the jurors was excused prior to the sentencing hearing, the prosecution waived the death penalty and Allen was sentenced to 95 years in prison.
His convictions were upheld on appeal.
In 1996, the Innocence Project began re-investigating Allen’s case. The Innocence Project initially closed Allen’s case in 1997 because the State claimed the biological evidence had been destroyed. In 2002, after the exoneration of Larry Johnson based on biological evidence that the State had also previously claimed was destroyed, a family advocate contacted the Innocence Project in the hope that the biological evidence in Allen’s case could also be located. The Innocence Project reopened the case and located the evidence.
In 2003, DNA tests performed on Bell’s robe and a pair of jeans found near her body concluded that Allen was not the source of the semen and proved the victim’s boyfriend was the source.
In 2007, the St. Louis law firm of Bryan Cave teamed up with the Innocence Project in order to assist in a full non-DNA re-investigation of the case. Further testing on other items of evidence in 2010 also failed to turn up Allen’s DNA.
In September 2012, lawyers for the Innocence Project and Bryan Cave filed a motion for a new trial for Allen citing the DNA evidence as well as newly discovered evidence that the police had failed to disclose to the prosecution or Allen’s defense prior to his trials.
The petition said that in 2010, lawyers found documents they had never seen before—police and laboratory reports that eliminated Allen as a suspect.
The laboratory documents showed that police actually found semen samples from two different men on Bell’s robe. Neither Allen nor the victim’s boyfriend or husband (from whom she was estranged) could be excluded as the source of one of those semen samples, and DNA tests now show it was from Bell’s boyfriend. Yet there was also a second semen donor found on the victim’s robe, and the B blood antigens in that semen stain excluded Allen and the victim’s consensual sex partners as the source. That stain had likely been consumed prior to trial and was thus unavailable for DNA testing.
The documents showed that prior to arresting Allen, police were collecting samples from suspects to determine their blood type because they believed the perpetrator was someone whose semen contained B antigens—a fact never revealed to the prosecution or the defense.
DNA testing also uncovered an unidentified male DNA profile on a towel in which the murder weapon was wrapped. Allen, the victim’s boyfriend and her estranged husband were eliminated as possible sources.
The petition said that the lawyers also discovered police reports showing that, contrary to police testimony, the seven fingerprints actually were good enough to compare (none were Allen’s).
The petition for new trial also said that Richardson came forward to say she did not remember whether or not she actually called out the victim’s name—a statement consistent with what she initially told police. Richardson said she was asked by police to undergo hypnosis to help her remember that she called out the name—which was not disclosed to the defense.
On November 2, 2012, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green granted the petition and vacated Allen’s conviction. Green ruled that the police—particularly Riley—had withheld critical evidence from the defense.
“Most critically, the undisclosed evidence, considered together, points unavoidably to the conclusion that the police—and Detective Riley in particular—ignored and hid evidence pointing to someone else as the perpetrator in their zealous pursuit of Allen’s conviction,” the judge wrote.
The judge found that the evidence withheld from the defense included the lab reports, police reports showing that the lab reported the exculpatory B antigens to the investigators on the case and reports showing the seven fingerprints were usable and excluded Allen. Also withheld was a drawing of the crime scene made by Allen ostensibly to test the accuracy of his confession that was not consistent with the actual layout of the crime scene and the evidence that Richardson had been hypnotized.
The judge ruled that Riley had conducted a coercive interrogation during which he fed facts of the crime to Allen. The judge said the investigation was “deeply flawed” and the confession “dubious.”
“When faced with exculpatory serology findings and fingerprints pointing to someone else as the killer, Riley stood firm in his faith in the confession he had obtained and chose to disregard—and then conceal—that evidence,” Judge Green ruled.
On November 7, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said she would not retry Allen. But hours after the announcement, the Missouri Attorney General’s office said it would appeal Green’s ruling.
Allen was released on bond on November 14, 2012—his first moment of freedom in more than 30 years.
On December 26, 2012, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Green’s decision. On January 18, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the case.
– Maurice Possley