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Elmer Daniels

Other Exonerees Who Served More Than 30 Years in Prison
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On January 15, 1980, a 15-year-old girl reported she had been raped along the railroad tracks in Wilmington, Delaware.

School was out that day because of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the girl, known as G.S., said she had been at a party with some friends. She left about 5 p.m. with a 15-year-old boy, known as K.C., to call a friend from a telephone at a gas station. Then, she said, they went up on the tracks and sat to wait for her friend to show up. G.S. said a young black man wearing tan pants and a green jacket approached them, and said he was a railroad security guard. He chased K.C. off, and then sexually assaulted G.S.

K.C. gave four statements to the police that were inconsistent about what he saw and where he was during the attack. He would testify that he and G.S. were having sex when a man approached, pulled him off G.S., chased him away, and then proceeded to assault the girl himself.

The police were also investigating two other unsolved rapes during this period. After police threatened to charge K.C. with third-degree rape, he said that he had recognized the assailant because they had been in the same eighth-grade homeroom a few years earlier. He gave a name: Elmer.

With that information, the police tracked down the homeroom teacher, who said K.C. had been in the same class as a boy named Elmer Daniels.

Police had a recent photo of Daniels, who had just turned 18, because he had two previous arrests for minor crimes. G.S., who like K.C. was white, had already looked at 300 photos, and now police gave her 50 more, including Daniels. She picked him as her assailant.

Daniels was arrested on January 17, 1980 and charged with first-degree rape. Because of his age, he underwent a court-ordered psychiatric exam. The doctor who interviewed him would state in his report that he had serious reservations about Daniels’s guilt.

He noted that the victim had initially described her offender as having a “big nose,” and severely bitten fingernails and cuticles. Daniels, the doctor noted, had a short, narrow nose, and his nails showed no signs of biting. “These facts, together with other findings of the examination, tend to make this examiner rather doubtful of the identification of the defendant.” The defense did not offer this report into evidence.

Daniels’s trial began May 19, 1980. Daniels had a strong alibi. Several witnesses testified that he was playing basketball at a community center near his house around the time of the assault. His nickname, “Fudd,” was on the sign-in sheet. The center was more than a mile from where the girl was attacked, and Daniels did not have a car or access to one. His mother and a neighbor also testified that Daniels had run an errand for them during the period right around when the assault was said to have happened.

The state’s case hinged in part on the testimony of G.S. and K.C. K.C. had been charged with hindering arrest and given three months’ probation. In addition, there was powerful forensic evidence connecting Daniels to the crime. Police had collected pubic hair from pants found at Daniels’s house and head hair from the panties of the victim. Michael Malone, an analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said that the hair from the pants was consistent with the pubic hair of the victim in “all microscopic characteristics,” and that the head hair found in the victim’s panties was also similiarly consistent with Daniels’s head hair.

"When you get a double, what we call a double match like this, it would increase the probability tremendously," Malone said. It was his opinion that it was extremely unlikely that Daniels wasn’t the source of the hair.

The prosecutor hammered this point home during closing arguments. He said, “You heard the FBI agent testify. He has never had a case where there’s been a double match. The victim’s hair on the defendant, the defendant’s hair on the victim, never had a case like that where they weren’t – where they weren’t the people who he said they were. Hair evidence is strong evidence. You heard him … All the alibi witnesses in the world aren’t going to get around that.”

Daniels was convicted by an all-white jury on May 22, 1980, and sentenced to life in prison. His appeals were unsuccessful. He was paroled in 2015 as a registered sex offender, but then returned to prison a year later for violating the conditions of his parole. One violation was for failure to hold a job; he was fired from a restaurant after a police officer told the management that he would tell patrons that a sex offender worked there. The second violation was for his failure to complete a required sex-offender therapy program. Daniels refused to admit his guilt, which was necessary for completion.

​In 2013, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers began a review of FBI analysts’ testimony and reports on hair comparisons. In 2015, the group said the review had found that analysts, including Malone, had provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of cases it had studied.

Daniels’s attorney, Emeka Igwe, contacted the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017, asking for a review of his client’s case. The agency then sent a letter to the Delaware attorney general in early 2018 that stated Malone’s testimony had “exceeded the limits of science.”

Daniels then sought relief through the Delaware Department of Justice’s Actual Innocence Program, which rejected his claim of innocence. It noted that the hair analysis and Malone’s testimony notwithstanding, there was other evidence of guilt, including the victim’s testimony and eyewitness identification.

As a compromise, the state offered to support an application for a pardon or a commutation. Daniels declined both offers.

Daniels had only been named as a suspect and his photo put into the array because of K.C.’s statement to police that he knew a boy named Elmer from eighth-grade homeroom. The teacher’s statement to police – and later testimony – had confirmed that connection, despite the three-year age difference between Daniels and K.C. In the fall of 2018, after the commutation offer had been rejected, attorneys for Daniels examined school records that showed Daniels was in high school when K.C. was in the eighth grade. They couldn’t have shared homerooms.

On the night Daniels was arrested, police had seized several pieces of clothing from his house, including a pair of tan pants and a green field jacket like the one G.S. described. The pants contained the hair analyzed by the FBI, and the jacket was used at trial to bolster the assertion that Daniels was the assailant. Daniels had said the jacket wasn’t his; it belonged to one of his younger brothers. There was a notebook in one of the pockets, and the police had been able to lift prints from that item. Prior to the trial, the FBI had compared those prints – as well as prints taken from the victim’s neck – to Daniels’s. Its report said Daniels wasn't the source of the notebook prints, and that the prints from the victim’s neck weren’t usable for comparison purposes. Daniels’s attorney received that report late and never entered it into evidence at trial.

In May 2018, Daniels’s attorney asked the FBI to run the fingerprints found on the notebook through its database. The sources of the fingerprints were both of his brothers, one of whom had been in homeroom with K.C.

Other physical evidence that could have contained genetic material allowing DNA testing was destroyed years ago.

Attorney General Matthew Denn filed a motion on November 30, 2018 asking that Daniels’s conviction be dismissed. In its motion, the state noted that Daniels had been in prison for nearly 39 years, more than twice the presumptive sentence if he was convicted of the same crime today. The state did not say he was innocent, but that the new evidence indicated uncertainty. “The state cannot conclusively state Mr. Daniels was not the victim’s assailant, but when coupling this information with the double-match testimony of agent Malone, the prosecutors continuing duty to seek justice requires re-examination.”

The motion was granted on December 13, 2018, a day after Daniels turned 57.

As he left prison, Daniels praised Igwe for helping him get the charges dismissed. “To find someone that believed in me and having me trust them. It was very hard for me to trust, going through what I was going through at such a young age. For the most part, it felt like nobody cared, but he did,” said Daniels.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/17/2018
State:Delaware
County:New Castle
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1980
Convicted:1980
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No