On DNA, prosecutors can’t handle the truth

by admin 14. October 2014 19:14


On Sept. 8, my client Jamie Peterson walked out of a jail in Kalkaska, exonerated by DNA after 17 years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit.

The DNA testing not only excluded Peterson but matched another man, Jason Ryan, who will stand trial later this year.

I am thrilled that Peterson is finally free. But I am also angry that the previous Kalkaska County prosecutor, aided by a local judge, managed to prevent the DNA from being tested and the real perpetrator from being identified for 12 years, even though they knew the DNA did not match Peterson. For 12 long years, Peterson remained in prison and Jason Ryan remained free because the prosecutor did not want to know the truth.

Peterson was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of Geraldine Montgomery even though the male DNA recovered from her rape kit did not match him.

At trial, prosecutor Brian Donnelly repeatedly insinuated that another stain found on Montgomery’s shirt would match Peterson if it could only be tested. Since none of the physical evidence matched Peterson, he was convicted entirely on a series of wildly inconsistent confessions he had made to the police, who knew that he was mentally ill.

By 2001, DNA testing had improved to the point that the stain on the shirt could be tested. Further, the CODIS system had come online so that the unknown male DNA from the rape kit could be compared to state and national databases of thousands of convicted felons.

One would think that the prosecutor would want to know the identity of the unknown male whose DNA was in Montgomery’s rape kit. But no, Donnelly fought for 12 years to keep the DNA from being tested.

When the issue went to court in 2002, Judge Alton Davis issued a baffling opinion concluding that since DNA wasn’t used to convict Peterson, there was no reason to find out whose DNA was inside and on the victim’s body. Donnelly continued to successfully resist repeated requests for DNA testing for another decade.

When I think about how Donnelly and Judge Davis fought the DNA testing in the Montgomery case, I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Rather than risk learning the uncomfortable truth that an innocent man might have been convicted, they chose to not find out who left DNA inside and on Geraldine Montgomery the night she was savagely murdered.

Finally, a new prosecutor, Michael Perreault, was elected in 2012, and to his great credit, he readily agreed to DNA testing when we and the Center on Wrongful Convictions approached him. The testing was performed in 2013, and it proved that all of the male DNA, including the stain on the shirt, came from the same man. A CODIS search quickly identified that man as Jason Ryan, who had been in the pool of original suspects in 1996. Ryan was finally arrested last December.

But the kind of obstruction we saw with Peterson continues to happen in other cases.

On Sept. 2, just six days before Jamie Peterson walked free, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by Oakland Circuit Judge Rae Lee Chabot that blood found on and near a murder victim, Robert Meija, shouldn’t be DNA tested even though the prosecution conceded that the blood type did not match Meija or Gilbert Poole, the man convicted of Meija’s murder. Despite the Cooley Innocence Project’s investigation that pointed to another suspect and its offer to pay for the testing, the Oakland County prosecutor opposed testing, making the same argument that was used to deny Peterson testing: since the blood wasn’t used to convict Poole, why should we test it now to find out who left the blood?

It’s so easy to answer that question. We should test that blood because the DNA may very well hit on a person who remains at large and who has continued to commit other crimes. There was only one perpetrator in the Poole case. Identifying a complete stranger to Poole, as Ryan was to Peterson, would strongly suggest that the wrong man is in prison.

The bottom line is this: Why doesn’t the Oakland County prosecutor want to know whose blood was found at the scene of a vicious murder? More broadly, why are some prosecutors so afraid of the truth? And why are some Michigan judges willing to help them hide the truth even when it means leaving violent criminals free to commit more crimes?

David A. Moran , The Detroit News


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11/13/2014 11:09:31 PM #


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