On the morning of May 22, 1977, the body of 65-year-old Erna L. Carlson was found by her sister in the bedroom of her Winter Haven, Florida, home. Carlson’s robe and part of her bedspread had been tied around her neck. Her pajama bottoms contained blood and semen fluid stains. Inspection of the house revealed that the screens on two doors leading into the house had been cut. In the garage, remnants of a stocking were found that contained a strand of hair consistent with hair belonging to a black person. The telephone wires outside the house had been cut.
Carlson’s car was found one mile from her home. The driver’s side door was locked, but the passenger side was open. The keys were found in the glove compartment, and fingerprints were located on the inside of the driver’s side window.
Anthony Peek was a 19-year-old black man residing at a Bartow, Florida, halfway house at the time of the crime. Neighbors reported to law enforcement that Peek had recently gone door-to-door in Carlson’s neighborhood looking for odd jobs. The police interviewed Peek, who told them that he had returned to the halfway house on the night in question before the murder took place. He submitted his fingerprints and hair samples.
The crime lab reported that the hair samples provided by Peek were microscopically similar to the one found at the crime scene. Following the testing, the hair samples were lost, preventing any further examination of this evidence. The blood and semen originated from an individual with type O blood, which was consistent with Peek’s blood type. His fingerprints were found on several locations of Carlson’s car.
Peek was charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery, grand larceny, and burglary. In July 1977, while awaiting trial on the Carlson case, Peek was convicted of the rape of a young Winter Haven woman. His sentence for that crime amounted to life imprisonment.
Peek’s testimony at the Carlson trial was consistent with the statement that he had previously given to law enforcement officers, with the exception of the admission that he had been inside the victim’s car. He stated that he had ridden his bicycle to the park and noticed the car. Since the door was unlocked, he had searched the glove compartment, thus explaining his fingerprints in the car. He said he had then ridden his bike back to the halfway house. Two counselors from the halfway house testified that they had conducted periodic bed checks on the night of the murder and had found Peek in his bed at every check. The counselors also testified that all doors of the halfway house were locked at night. In addition to the other evidence presented by prosecution, an employee from the Sanford Crime Lab testified that the hair sample taken from the crime scene was microscopically consistent with Peek’s hair sample and that only the hair of two out of 10,000 persons would match these characteristics.
Peek was convicted of first-degree murder, grand larceny, and sexual assault and sentenced to death on May 2, 1978.
At a post-conviction hearing in 1983, it was revealed that the statistics provided by the hair analyst at trial were false. The gravity of this false testimony resulted in Polk County Circuit Judge John Dewell granting a retrial to Peek. During the retrial, the prosecution reiterated the same evidence introduced at the first trial with the exception of Peek’s second rape conviction and the hair analysis statistics. The defense argued that the prior conviction would influence the jury because it reflected on his character and propensity for crime, but the judge allowed the testimony and Peek was once again convicted and sentenced to death.
On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a third trial, this time because evidence that Peek had been convicted of an unrelated rape had been inappropriately introduced at his second trial. In January 1987, Peek was tried for the third time and acquitted.
– Doug Spitzer
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.