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Robert Butler

Other Tennessee Exonerations
On October 7, 1976, 34-year-old Robert Butler, a Sociology Department teaching assistant and a doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee, allowed an 18-year-old female student to take an exam in his office a day earlier than the rest of the class because she was leaving to travel home.

The student later returned to her dormitory and told her roommate that after the exam, Butler forced her to engage in oral sex and then raped her. The woman then went to a hospital where she was examined and police were notified.

Butler was arrested and charged with rape. He went to trial in June 1977 in Knox County Criminal Court. The woman testified that after she finished the exam, Butler, who is black, invited the student, who is white, to participate in an “experiment” to gauge her reaction to a black man.

She said Butler put two chairs inside an office closet and they sat facing each other. The door was closed, leaving them in darkness. She said Butler then threatened to harm her and held a sharp object he claimed was a knife to her throat. She told the jury that Butler forced her to engage in oral sex and then to engage in sexual intercourse. She was then allowed to leave.

The physician who examined the woman at the hospital testified that he found no bruises, injuries or any other evidence suggesting physical trauma.

Butler testified and denied raping the student. He said they engaged in consensual sex. He denied attempting to engage the student in any “experiment.” A graduate student testified that she saw Butler within an hour after the rape was alleged to have occurred and that Butler was behaving normally.

In rebuttal, the prosecution called two of Butler’s former students who testified that they had engaged in experiments with Butler that were similar to what the complainant had described, although those experiments did not lead to sexual intercourse.

The case ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict—11 jurors voted to acquit Butler and one juror voted to convict him.

Butler went to trial a second time in September 1977. The prosecution had subpoenaed the physician, but at the last minute advised the physician they were not going to call him as a witness. The physician then left town on a fishing trip. As a result, the physician did not testify at the trial at all. Further, the defense attorney—after telling the jurors in his opening statement that Butler would testify—did not call Butler as a witness. The defense lawyer also did not call the graduate student who had testified at the first trial to do so again.

The jury convicted Butler of rape and he was sentenced to life in prison.

After his conviction was upheld by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, Butler filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate his conviction on the ground that his attorney had provided a constitutionally inadequate legal defense by failing to subpoena the physician to the trial, by failing to call Butler as a witness after telling the jury that Butler would testify and by failing to call the graduate student as a witness.

After an evidentiary hearing in 1985, the petition was dismissed. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, however, reversed the dismissal and ordered the conviction vacated. In 1990, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled the Appeals Court and reinstated the conviction, holding that the evidence, even if it had been presented at the trial, would not have resulted in an acquittal.

Butler then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus again claiming his lawyer had provided a constitutionally inadequate legal defense. In 1993, U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman granted the writ and ordered Butler retried within 60 days. Wiseman ruled that Butler’s trial had been unfair because his lawyer had failed to insure that the physician would be present to testify, failed to object to the prosecution’s improper comment on Butler’s decision not to testify in his own behalf, and failed to call the graduate student as a witness. Butler was released on bond on July 22, 1993.

In February 1995, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Wiseman’s decision. On May 1, 1995, Knox County Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz dismissed the charge against Butler. The judge ruled that the state had failed to retry Butler within the 60 days pursuant to Wiseman’s order in 1993 and had not obtained any court order that would have suspended Wiseman’s order while the case was being appealed.

Butler went on to become a Baptist minister and professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he headed the Sociology Department’s criminal justice program. In 2001, he was arrested and charged with possession of crack cocaine. He resigned from the college, pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/8/2014
State:Tennessee
County:Knox
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1976
Convicted:1977
Exonerated:1995
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:34
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No