Robert Lee Stinson served over 23 years in a Wisconsin prison for a brutal rape and murder DNA proves he did not commit. He was convicted based on the improper and unvalidated expert testimony of a bite-mark analyst whose conclusions were uncontested at trial.
Early in the morning of November 3, 1984, a neighbor passing through an alley on his way to work discovered the body of 63-year-old Ione Cychosz in a vacant lot behind her home. She had been raped, stabbed and beaten to death. Her clothing was scattered around the lot. Spermatozoa cells were found in a vaginal wash, but the number of cells retrieved was too few for identification purposes. Eight bite marks, inflicted prior to death, were also identified on the victim’s body.
The victim was last seen shortly after midnight, only a few hours before the murder, when a friend had dropped her off and watched her enter her building. The coroner later estimated that the time of death was between midnight and 2 a.m.
After examining the body, dental scientist Dr. Lowell Thomas Johnson worked with a police sketch artist and determined that the bite-marks on the body must have come from someone missing an upper front tooth.
The police questioned multiple suspects, including two men arrested for violent sexual assaults shortly after Cychosz was murdered. Both of these men had missing teeth consistent with Dr. Johnson’s sketch. Police investigators also visited 21-year-old Robert Lee Stinson, whose backyard was connected to the vacant lot where Cychosz’s body was discovered. While interviewing Stinson, the investigators told him a joke, and noticed both a missing front tooth and a crooked tooth when he laughed. Based on these observations, and his proximity to the crime scene, Stinson was arrested and charged with murder.
The only physical evidence against Stinson at his 1985 trial was the bite-mark testimony of two forensic odontologists. Dr. Johnson concluded that the bite marks “had to have been made by teeth identical” to Stinson’s, and claimed that there was “no margin for error” in his conclusion. The State also called Dr. Raymond Rawson, the chairman of the Bite Mark Standards Committee of the American Board of Forensic Odontologists, who testified that the evidence in the case was “high quality” and “overwhelming.” However, the prosecution’s experts failed to note that Stinson was missing a tooth in the place where the bite marks indicated a dentition.
While Stinson’s attorney moved to exclude the bite-mark testimony, he did not object to the qualifications of the State’s expert witnesses, nor did he call his own expert to testify, although one had been retained. According to Stinson’s attorney, he was unable to find qualified experts because Dr. Johnson had presented the results of his analysis at an odontological conference before the trial, and therefore many experts felt their analysis had already been tainted by Dr. Johnson’s conclusions.
Stinson also gave inconsistent accounts of his whereabouts at the time of the murder, but as the prosecution admitted at trial, the crux of their case was based on the bite mark analysis. After a three-day trial, Stinson was convicted of first-degree murder on the strength of the forensic testimony, and sentenced to life in prison. There was no other direct evidence linking him to the murder.
On appeal, Stinson argued that the bite-mark testimony was not credible and claimed that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel. At trial, Stinson had attempted to replace his appointed counsel, since his attorney had only been on the case for two weeks and had not had time to prepare an adequate defense. Stinson also claimed to have a personality conflict with his attorney. His appeal was denied, and his conviction was upheld.
The improper bite-mark testimony would eventually provide the spark that cleared Stinson, but it took 20 years. The Wisconsin Innocence Project accepted Stinson’s case in 2005, and sought DNA testing of saliva and blood-stains on the victim’s sweater, which ultimately excluded Stinson. Yet this would not be enough. Working with Christopher Plourd, a California forensic science expert and attorney, the Wisconsin Innocence Project re-examined the bite-mark evidence and determined that Stinson did not match the indentations. Moreover, a panel of four nationally recognized experts independently reviewed the findings and unanimously reached the same conclusion.
Dr. Johnson now works at Marquette University with the prosecutor who tried Stinson’s case. He stood by his conclusions, as did the prosecutor, who noted that, “nobody in the state of Wisconsin had done a bite-mark rape-murder case like this one before…. So we were really reinventing the wheel.”
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office did not oppose Stinson’s motion to overturn his conviction. On January 30, 2009, Circuit Judge Patricia McMahon granted the motion, and Robert Lee Stinson, then 44, was freed and his conviction was vacated. He had served more than two decades in prison for a crime DNA evidence proves he didn’t commit. After his release, the District Attorney’s office had six months to decide whether or not to retry him. Finally, at a hearing on July 27, 2009, prosecutors, after undertaking their own investigation, dropped all charges against Stinson.
Since his release, Stinson has moved into his sister’s Milwaukee home with her children. He also plans on writing a book about his wrongful conviction. He received $25,000 from the state of Wisconsin (the maximum allowed under the Wisconsin compensation law) and the state legislature is debating a special bill that would award him an additional $90,000.
On April 23, 2012, Moses Price Jr., 51, was charged with second-degree murder for the murder of Cychosz after he was linked to the killing by DNA found on the victim's clothing. Price, who is serving a 35-year sentence for a 1991 murder of a Milwaukee man, also gave a statement to authorities that he followed the victim after she got off a bus, then had a "blackout" and when he came out of it, he was on top of the woman and had a knife in his hand.