Shortly before 6 a.m. on February 24, 1981, a man broke into the Washington, D.C. residence of a young woman, tied her up and raped and sodomized her at gunpoint before leaving with $400 in Traveler’s checks.
The woman said she was blindfolded by the attacker, but that she got a brief glimpse of him in the early morning light before he gagged her and wrapped her head in several of her scarves.
After sexually assaulting her, the man demanded money. The woman said she only had Traveler’s checks and the man, though he took them, sarcastically responded that he would not be able to cash them.
Police collected the sheets and pillow cases as well as the victim’s nightgown and robe. The victim described her attacker as in his late teens or early 20’s, 5 feet, 6 inches to 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighing 120 to 130 pounds. She said he was African American with a medium complexion, short hair and was clean shaven.
The following day, the victim, who was in her 20’s, met with a police sketch artist after viewing some photographs at the police station and a composite sketch was created. She then looked through police mug shot books, viewing 200 to 400 photos and did not identify anyone.
On April 3, 1981, a police officer had a casual conversation with 18-year-old Kirk Odom and later thought that Odom resembled the sketch. He tracked down a photograph of Odom at age 16 and put it in a photo lineup with nine other photographs, although many of the others were older and had facial hair while Odom was clean-shaven and was the darkest-skinned man in the group.
The victim made a tentative identification of Odom, but said she wanted to see his whole body and hear his voice before she could be sure.
Odom, who had an IQ of 73, had quit school after the 10th grade and two years earlier had been classified as having the intellectual capacity of a third-grade student. He was arrested May 4, 1981 and charged with rape, sodomy, armed robbery and burglary.
On May 19, 1981, a live lineup was arranged that included Odom. The victim listened to the men’s voices and then identified Odom as her attacker. She was taken immediately to a grand jury where she testified about her identification.
At Odom’s trial in September 1981, the victim made an in-court identification of Odom. An FBI agent testified that hair found on the victim’s nightgown was microscopically similar to Odom’s hair.
The agent, Myron Scholberg, testified that the finding was significant. The prosecution told the jury that this was “a very rare phenomenon; only eight or 10 times in the past 10 years, while performing thousands of analyses, had Scholberg reported that he could not distinguish even microscopically between two or three known samples.”
Not only was that a misleading attempt to attach statistics to an opinion where none were kept, but Scholberg’s laboratory notes would later disclose that in this case he only catalogued the color of the hair, a description of the part of the body the hair appeared to come from and that it was a fragment.
The sheets and other clothing were tested by a serologist, who testified that semen and were sperm present. None of these tests linked Odom to the crime.
Odom’s mother testified in his defense that he was at home sleeping at the time of the crime—a fact she remembered because Odom’s sister came home from the hospital that day with her new baby.
Odom also testified in his own behalf, denying he was involved in the crime. He said he did not know what a Traveler’s check was.
The jury convicted Odom of all counts on September 9, 1981. On January 6, 1982, Odom was sentenced to 20 to 66 years in prison.
Odom served more than 21 years in prison and was released on parole in 2003. He was required to register as a sex offender.
In December 2009, Donald Gates was exonerated by DNA testing in Washington, D.C. Gates had been convicted on basis of hair comparison testimony similar to that in Odom’s case.
Richard Greenlee, an attorney who formerly worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and who had represented Odom at trial, read about the Gates case and called the Public Defender Service office about Odom.
On February 14, 2011, the Public Defender Service filed a motion for DNA testing of the biological evidence in Odom’s case. The evidence was located in storage and sent out for testing.
In January 2012, a report of the tests showed that Odom had been excluded as the rapist.
On July 10, 2012, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. joined with a motion filed by attorneys for Odom to vacate the convictions and dismiss the charges.
– Maurice Possley