After serving nearly 10 years on death row in Oklahoma for crimes he didn’t commit, Robert Lee Miller, Jr. was proven innocent through DNA testing and released in 1998.
On September 3, 1986 an 83-year old woman was found raped and murdered in her apartment in northwest Oklahoma City. Four months later, in an apartment across the street, police discovered another woman, 90 years old, raped and murdered.
The Investigation and Identification
A stain believed to be semen was collected by police from one crime scene. Blood, hair and saliva samples were discovered at the other victim’s home.
Based on serology tests from both crime scenes, investigators believed the perpetrator was a secretor with type A blood (a secretor is a person whose blood type can be determined from other body fluids). Further testing of the crime scene evidence revealed an allotype profile that was attributed to the perpetrator. An allotype is a genetic marker associated with the human immune system. The lab report indicated that the allotype result from the evidence occurred with more frequency in the African-American population. The report went on to erroneously suggest that this meant there was a high likelihood that the perpetrator was African American (racial statistics about the distribution of certain genetic markers do not correlate to a prediction of the likelihood of the perpetrator’s race). Based on this faulty assumption, police focused their search on African-American men.
Oklahoma City police officers canvassed the neighborhood and asked black men to provide blood samples. Miller, a local African-American man known to police, was tested. The results showed that he was a Type A secretor. Police brought him in for questioning and conducted a 12-hour interrogation, half of which was recorded by a hidden camera. According to a statement from the public defender, Miller “began talking about dreams, visions, spells and hair.” He added that Robert was probably under the influence of marijuana cigarettes dipped in PCP at the time of the interview, as he was known to hang around a drug house as a “street watcher.”
During his interview with police, Miller attempted to answer questions as if he were clairvoyant and could see how the crime took place through the killer’s eyes. He believed he was helping police solve the crime by telling them pertinent details and at no point realized that he could have implicated himself in the crime. Police eventually led him to what the State called an admission of guilt, even though a later examination of the tapes revealed many inconsistencies between Miller’s statements and the actual circumstances of the crimes.
Miller was charged with both murders and rapes. At trial, the prosecutor relied on Miller’s purported admission of guilt and the testimony of Oklahoma Police Forensic Analyst Joyce Gilchrist to argue his case. The State claimed that in the videotaped interrogation, Robert indicated specific circumstantial knowledge of both crimes that only the perpetrator would have known. Most of the information that supposedly implicated Miller came from general speculation, details that were previously released in newspapers or televised crime reports, or random guesses or inferences he made about the crime scenes. The prosecutor aggregated these statements and presented them as an admission of guilt, despite multiple instances in the videotape in which Miller adamantly denies involvement in the crimes.
In addition to the videotape, the prosecutor emphasized the results of hair and semen tests conducted by Joyce Gilchrist, an OCPD lab analyst who would later be fired for misconduct and false testimony in dozens of cases. According to Gilchrist, lab results indicated that semen from the crime scene came from a person with type A blood, which did not match the victim. She said Miller matched this blood type and had other markers in common with the evidence, so she could not eliminate him as a suspect. Significantly, Gilchrist also tested blood and saliva samples from the same crime scene and found different blood markers, inconsistent with Miller’s blood samples. She justified this result by stating that the sample was mixed and could have included markers from the victim’s blood. Based on her report, the State also eliminated Ronald Lott, another primary suspect in the investigation.
Gilchrist also testified that hair samples found at the crime scene had “Negroid characteristics” but said she couldn’t identify an individual. Defense attorneys asked the analyst about the possibility of DNA testing, but no tests were conducted as DNA testing had recently been developed and not yet been accepted by Oklahoma courts.
Gilchrist also testified that animal hairs collected from the crime scene had similar characteristics to hairs from a neighborhood dog that Miller was known to care for.
The jury found Robert Miller guilty on all counts and he was later sentenced to death for the two murders. For the two rapes, he was sentenced to 287 years and 392 years. He was sentenced to 20 years for each burglary charge and ten years for the attempted burglary.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
Forensic scientists reexamined the semen evidence in 1992 using DNA testing. The lab compared the semen from the crime scene to Miller’s DNA profile and concluded he could not have been the source. Two years later, the hair samples originally analyzed by Joyce Gilchrist were reevaluated by another private lab. Analysts said Gilchrist’s comparison of hair fragments from the crime scene to Miller’s scalp hair was “essentially meaningless” and “completely unjustified.” Analysts also said that Gilchrist’s testimony at trial about dog hairs had been invalid. In 1995, based in part on these findings, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out Miller’s conviction and sentence and granted him a new trial.
While Miller was awaiting a new trial, more advanced DNA testing was conducted in the case. The results excluded Miller and included Ronald Lott, an initial alternate suspect, as the perpetrator.
The court ordered a review of the videotaped interrogation and ultimately ruled that there was insufficient evidence to keep Miller in jail. Prosecutors appealed the decision and again relied on Miller’s supposed confession. Prosecutors changed their theory and alleged that Lott committed the rapes and Miller committed the murders. The defense showed that Miller never admitted to the crime, but instead adamantly denied his involvement over 70 times throughout the course of the interview. The defense also pointed out that, during the original trial, Judge Charles Owens characterized Miller’s taped statements as being neither a confession nor an admission to anything.
In 1997 the appeals court rejected the prosecutor’s arguments and agreed that Miller was entitled to a new trial. He presented a defense center on the DNA exclusion and was acquitted based on the DNA evidence. He was released on January 22, 1998. He had spent 7 years on death row and almost 10 years wrongfully imprisoned.
Lott had confessed to two similar crimes, committed while Miller was incarcerated, involving the rape of older women. He was eventually convicted of the murders for which Miller had been incarcerated as well. Lott was executed in December 2013.