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On May 15, 1986, 26-year-old Danny Wood was arrested in Columbus, Indiana on charges of sexually molesting the eight-year-old daughter of his girlfriend.
The events that led to the filing of charges began in February of that year when Wood went to see an attorney about obtaining legal custody of the girl. On April 7, 1986, the girl, identified as CB, and her mother moved out of the home where they lived with Wood and went to live with the girl's grandmother. That same day, the girl's grandmother claimed that the girl said Wood had been “messing with me."
A week later, on April 14, 1986, Wood filed a petition seeking custody of CB and her younger sister. Evidence would later show that from 1979 until 1986, CB had lived in 29 or 30 different homes. Her mother had refused to allow CB to spend Christmas with her natural father because she suspected he had molested CB in the past.
However, not long after, CB and her mother moved back in with Wood. On June 4, 1986, after Wood was released on bond, CB's mother took CB to the prosecutor's office and said CB wanted to change her story. But when the prosecutor talked to CB, CB insisted that Wood had molested her. At that point, welfare officials were called and CB was placed in a foster home. On June 6, Wood and CB's mother drove to Tennessee and were married.
Wood went to trial in Bartholomew County Circuit Court in February 1987. By that time, CB had given various statements. She made some of them under oath during a pre-trial deposition, in which she denied that Wood molested her and said she had been molested by perhaps as many as three other family members, one of whom also was named “Danny."
Wood's defense attorney, J. Richard Kiefer, compared the relationship between CB's family and Wood's family to the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky, whose families famously carried on a feud for nearly 30 years in the nineteenth century. At one point, Kiefer said, a member of CB's family fired a gun at Wood's car. The families had a habit of making false accusations against each other and later recanting, Kiefer said. He also said that CB was suggestable and that when she was interviewed by police, she often agreed to the suggestions the detective made about dates of molestations and what had occurred.
Kiefer also told the jurors about the case of Lenell Geter, a Dallas man who had been convicted of a robbery in 1982 and exonerated in 1984. Kiefer noted that Geter had been convicted despite being college-educated and having numerous alibi witnesses—advantages that Wood did not have—making him an “easy victim…of an unfounded charge."
CB testified that Wood had offered her a bicycle to recant her allegation against him. She said he had molested her on Christmas Eve and during the first week of April before she and her mother moved out. She said he had performed oral sex on her and attempted to penetrate her with his penis.
Dr. Brian Nelson testified that he performed a sexual assault examination on CB and found no abnormalities or evidence of penetration.
Kiefer attempted numerous times to elicit testimony and present exhibits indicating that someone else had molested CB. However, Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Forster Trautman refused to admit the evidence. Judge Trautman said she based her ruling on the rape shield statute, which prohibits attempts to use a complainant's past sexual history to attack the pending charges.
At one point, Helen Jackson, a Bartholomew County Child Protective Services caseworker who had interviewed CB and her mother, testified that CB's mother believed that CB had confused Danny Wood for the other relative named Danny as her molester. Jackson also said CB described an incident that her mother's brother “may have done something" to CB. The prosecution objected and the judge ordered the jury to disregard that testimony.
Kiefer also was precluded from questioning CB's grandmother about statements the grandmother had made that CB had been molested in the past while at her natural father's house. During the cross-examination of another welfare caseworker, the judge excluded five exhibits relating to entries made in reports about other possible molesters, one of whom had allegedly molested CB on Christmas Eve 1985—the same date CB claimed Wood molested her.
Wood denied the allegations. He contended that CB was making the claims because she didn't like him and had been influenced by her mother and other family members after Wood sought to obtain legal custody.
During closing argument, Kiefer emphasized to the jury that CB had repeatedly changed her testimony and was easily influenced—accepting suggestions during interviews with police and caseworkers with “astonishing adaptability." He also noted that CB had once said Wood molested her more than 50 times and that some of those instances could not have occurred because she claimed he molested her after she and her mother had moved out.
On February 16, 1987, the jury convicted Wood of two counts of child molesting. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. After the trial, the jurors publicly said they intended to use some of their combined nearly $1,400 in jury duty pay to take CB out to lunch and on a shopping trip because they felt she had had such a difficult life.
On appeal, Wood's appellate attorney, Jesse James Paul III, argued that Judge Trautman had erroneously barred the defense from presenting evidence that others, including a family member also named “Danny," had molested CB.
“Distilled to its essence, this [case] rests solely upon the testimony of a child who has always disliked appellant, whose closest family, grandparents, uncles and aunts…have been involved in a longstanding feud with…the Wood family; a child whose story was constantly changing, evolving, who did not want to have Danny Wood as a custodial 'parent,' and whose story cannot be 'corroborated' in any manner, but for its lack of consistency," the lawyer argued.
In March 1989, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. “By preventing the admission of evidence, Wood was prevented from fully, adequately, and effectively cross-examining several witnesses regarding a material fact in issue, thus creating an actual impingement on his right of confrontation," the court ruled. “While we readily acknowledge the policy of protecting a sex crime complainant, this policy, under the facts of this case, must be subordinated to the defendant's constitutional rights. The trial court abused its discretion by excluding the evidence."
On August 17, 1990, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Wood was released.
After Indiana enacted a law in 2019 enabling wrongfully convicted defendants to seek compensation from the state, Wood filed a claim.
– Karina E. Regalo and Maurice Possley
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.