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Dennis Butler

Other District of Columbia exonerations
On September 29, 1970, 75-year-old Jesse Mears, the caretaker of an apartment building at 1312 East Capitol Street Northeast in Washington, D.C., was found murdered in a vacant apartment on the third floor of the building.

Mears’s hands were bound with a dog leash. A woman’s nylon stocking and toilet paper had been shoved in his mouth and held in place with an elastic band that Mears had used to attach his keys to his belt. A telephone cord was wrapped around his neck. A toilet tank lid partially covered his head. His wallet and keys were missing. His belt, which had been broken in half, was found in a kitchen drawer.

The following day, police arrested 19-year-old Dennis Butler after James Robinson and his girlfriend, Phyllis Robinson, reported that he had confessed to them that he killed Mears. Butler was charged with felony murder, first-degree murder, and robbery.

About 10 days later, a man who was tarring a roof of a building in the same block where Butler’s girlfriend lived found a set of keys that turned out to be Mears’s keys.

In July 1972, Butler went to trial in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. Five witnesses testified that they saw Butler or Mears on the day of the crime, although no one saw the crime occur.

These included two District of Columbia water department workers, Lawrence Robertson and John Taylor, who were installing a water meter around 9:30 a.m. in front of the building. Mears came out and asked them what they were doing. Robertson later saw Mears at 1:30 p.m. with a “middle-aged man” standing near a red car parked on the street. Taylor said Mears stopped by later and asked what time it was. Taylor said he saw Mears and “some other guy” looking at the red car at around 1:30 or 1:45 p.m. At about that time Taylor informed the residents of the building that the water was going to be shut off. He said that the man with Mears was 25 to 30 years old. Asked if he saw the man with Mears in the courtroom, Taylor said he did not.

Charles Barber lived on the same block and he said that at 12:30 or 1 p.m., as he was going home, he saw Butler and “another man under the hood of the car.” Barber said he recognized the other man as the “one who owned the place.” His description of the man—old, white and thin—fit Mears.

Ellen Johnson lived a few blocks away with her husband and her sister, Margaret Dean. Johnson said Butler was dating her sister. At the time of the crime, Johnson was living in the building where Mears was killed. She knew him as the “rent man.” Johnson said that at about noon, Mears knocked on her door. She said the next time she saw him was when a man came to her door and asked her to come up to the third floor “and see his body.” Johnson said that afterward, she told Margaret Dean and another neighborhood resident, James Hill, that Mears was dead.

She said that Hill asked her where Butler was and she replied that Butler “wasn’t around there and that somebody had just killed our rent man.”

Wilson Dean, who was Margaret Dean’s brother, testified that he had worked for Mears for about three weeks. He said Butler was his sister’s boyfriend and sometimes stayed with the family. Dean testified that he saw Butler several times on the day of the crime in the neighborhood. Dean said that he worked for Mears three days before the murder, plastering and painting in the apartment where the murder eventually occurred. Dean said that while he was working there, Butler came by, but didn’t stay long. Dean said he left a paint pan, paint roller and a bucket of green paint in the kitchen. He said he noticed a dog leash and collar outside the window on the roof and a white stocking in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.

James Hill testified that he telephoned Butler around 3 or 3:30 p.m. He said Butler sounded out of breath and he asked Butler where he had been. Hill said Butler told him he “just killed the rent man” because “the old man caught him selling narcotics to two boys.” Hill said Butler said Mears took the drugs and flushed them down the toilet. According to Hill, Butler said he tied Mears up and put a “stocking or something in his mouth.” Hill said Butler said he was choking Mears with his belt, but the belt broke, so he used a telephone cord. Hill said Butler told him he poured some water in Mears’s mouth to “make sure he was dead.”

Hill said that Butler came to Hill’s house around 4 p.m. and said he had some keys to the apartment and that he intended to go back there later. Hill said that in the presence of Butler, he told his girlfriend, Phyllis Robinson, that “Dennis just killed a man.” Hill said that Butler brought him two doses of heroin, which he shot into his veins.

Robinson testified that when she got off work at a McDonald’s restaurant, she came to Hill’s house. She said that when Hill said that Butler had killed a man, Butler “cut in” and said, “I had to do something.”

During cross-examination, Hill and Robinson admitted to numerous lies about their drug use and admitted to numerous inconsistencies about whether they used drugs that day—eventually both admitted that they did. Hill initially denied that he used drugs at all after the day of the crime and said he had even stopped using methadone—both statements were lies, he admitted.

Robinson admitted that she had lied to police and to the jury when she said she did not use heroin on the day of the crime.

A police officer testified that 16 fingerprints were lifted in the apartment where Mears was killed, but that none was linked to Butler.

FBI special agent McNair Perry testified that he compared a key on the ring of keys found on the roof to a key to Mears’s red car. He concluded that the keys were both made by General Motors and would “operate the same lock.”

FBI special agent David Nichols testified that he analyzed the blue-green colored paint specimens found on Butler’s pants, as well as on Mears’s suit jacket and on a soda bottle found near the body. He concluded that the specimens were the “same as one another in color, texture and type of paint.” He said the specimens “could have come from the same source” and that the paint that was on all of the items was “applied while wet.”

FBI special agent Myron Scholberg, a hair and fiber expert, testified that he conducted microscopic comparisons of hairs from Mears’s clothing and from Butler’s head. He said that he looked for “approximately 16 different characteristics” and that the hairs did not need to have all of the characteristics because a lack of the characteristics—if common to all the hairs—“could be just as important as if the characteristic was actually there.”

Scholberg said that the three hairs he examined were “microscopically the same or alike.” He said at one point that the hairs “could have come from the head” of Butler.

When the prosecutor asked whether he was saying that the hairs were “only similar,” Scholberg said, “No, I am not. When you imply that something is similar, you are implying that it is also different in some respects. My report and my testimony is that these hairs are the same. They are alike in all identifiable microscopic characteristics.”

He said that the hairs were “a match in all microscopic characteristics.” Scholberg estimated that he had performed about 10,000 hair comparisons and that he had been qualified as an expert in hair analysis in 30 states and the District of Columbia. He said that only on four or five occasions did he find hair from a suspect and a victim to be so alike he could not tell them apart.

An investigator for the defense team testified that during an interview prior to trial, Hill said that police had threatened to charge him and Robinson with the crime if they “did not talk”—a claim that detectives denied during their testimony.

Butler’s girlfriend, Margaret Dean, testified that she learned about the murder that evening from her sister, Lillian Harring, who said she had learned of the details from Ellen Johnson, who saw Mears’s body in the apartment before police arrived. Dean said she discussed the murder with a number of people, including Hill.

Catherine Johnson, a friend of Butler’s, testified that she learned of the murder around 5 p.m. on the day it occurred. She said that 10 minutes later, she ran into Butler in Lincoln Park, which was about a block away. She said Butler “acted surprised” when she told him that Mears had been killed.

The prosecution’s closing argument strongly emphasized the hair analysis testimony. “You have the FBI report saying that this man’s hair compared with the hairs found on the body of the dead man,” the prosecutor said. “They are the same in every microscopic characteristic—every one. You hear of the sixteen possible combinations…Every one matched.”

On July 15, 1971, the jury convicted Butler of felony murder, first-degree murder, and robbery. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. His convictions were upheld on appeal.

In August 1978, Butler escaped from prison. He remained free for the next 28 years and finally surrendered to authorities in August 2006. He pled guilty to escape, was sentenced to 24 months, and was sent back to prison.

In 2013, after three men who had been convicted on the basis of improper FBI testimony about hair analysis were exonerated by DNA, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers convinced the FBI to audit cases where FBI agents had testified about or conducted microscopic hair analysis.

In 2015, the FBI identified 268 cases where FBI agents linked defendants to crimes through hair analysis and 257 of those cases—96 percent—involved scientifically invalid testimony, such as saying that hairs were a positive match or giving unsupported mathematical odds of a match. Twenty-seven of 29 analysts either gave faulty testimony or submitted erroneous reports.

In April 2015, the Washington Post reported that flawed testimony by either FBI agents or crime lab analysts trained by the FBI likely affected as many as 2,500 cases across the country.

In September 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia notified Butler that Scholberg’s testimony had been reviewed and that prosecutors concluded that the testimony had been false or misleading—it had exceeded the limits of science and was unreliable.

A year later, in September 2016, Butler’s lawyers from the Public Defender Service, Jenna Cobb, Adam Thompson and Jonathan Anderson, moved to vacate Butler’s convictions. The motion noted: “As the government now admits…this purportedly scientific hair evidence was in fact unscientific, misleading and false.”

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell denied the motion. The judge declared, “While the government’s use of this false evidence should not have occurred, upon review of the entirety of the trial record, the Court concludes that ‘there is no reasonable likelihood’ that presentation of the false hair matching evidence ‘could have altered the outcome of the case.’”

Butler’s lawyers appealed and in April 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated Butler’s convictions and ordered a new trial. “[W]e conclude that the government’s presentation against Butler of evidence that it knew (or should have known) was false [and] denied him a fair trial.”

On July 2, 2020, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Butler, 69, was released—nearly 50 years after his arrest in 1970.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/14/2020
Last Updated: 8/14/2020
State:District of Columbia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1970
Sentence:20 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No