Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) reports that Jamie Lee Peterson has been exonerated following a long battle to have DNA testing done in his case, the results of which point to another killer. Questionable police interrogation practices led to Peterson’s giving a false confession, and the state used the confession to prosecute him despite the lack of forensic evidence connecting him to the crime. On appeal, the Kalkaska County Prosecuting Attorney’s office fought Peterson’s attempts to have a second sample of DNA material from the crime scene tested for many years, even though the state argued to Peterson’s jury at trial that, in the absence of testing, the jury could assume that the DNA belonged to Peterson.
Peterson was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of a Kalkaska County woman after he gave police a series of false confessions. In a write-up about the case, CWC describes the case against Peterson as shaky from the beginning. DNA collected from one sample of semen at the crime scene discounted Peterson, the other sample was unable to be tested at the time of trial because DNA testing technology did not allow it:
… the rudimentary DNA testing available at the time was conducted on the vaginal swab. That testing excluded Mr. Peterson as the source of the male DNA. However, given the limitations of the DNA testing, the State’s DNA expert was unable to develop a DNA profile from the semen portion of the shirt stain.
After the testing, the police re-interrogated Mr. Peterson. They falsely told him that while the DNA testing proved it was him, it also proved he had an accomplice. Over the next few weeks Mr. Peterson confessed several more times to police. During each of these confessions, he named several accomplices, but further DNA testing and police investigation cleared all those he named.
The audiotapes of the interrogation revealed that Peterson failed to get basic, uncontroversial facts about the crime scene correct.
Knowing that the second sample of DNA could not be tested, the prosecution argued at Peterson’s trial that it was likely Peterson’s semen and that the first sample which discounted him belonged to an unidentified accomplice. CWC refers to this argument as “the infamous ‘unindicted co-ejaculator theory'” – infamous because it has been used since the rise of DNA testing to explain how defendants could still be responsible for a crime when their DNA does not match the crime scene evidence. A 2011 article from The New York Times titled, “The Prosecution’s Case Against DNA,” details other problematic cases where the state has applied this reasoning.
Rather than testing the second sample of semen when DNA technology improved, the Kalkaska DA’s office opposed Peterson’s requests to do so. The CWC recounts:
As the DNA technology improved, through Attorney Millstein, Mr. Peterson moved for DNA testing of the shirt stain. He also requested that the DNA profile of the unidentified male placed into a national DNA database of known criminal offenders. The prosecution and then the courts, however, blocked these requests and refused to test the DNA. This was perhaps the oddest fact about the case – the State publicly theorized that there was an unknown accomplice who was responsible for the semen on the vaginal swab, but they refused to use the new technology to try and identify this person.
When a new prosecuting attorney finally consented to the testing, the results showed that both samples of semen came from the same person, Jason Ryan, who has subsequently been arrested and charged in the case. However, the state refused to let Peterson go, arguing on procedural grounds that the DNA evidence wasn’t “new” because, even though it was unable to be tested, it existed at the time of trial. Though the state clearly argued in rebuttal at Peterson’s trial that the semen found on the victim’s shirt likely belonged to him, it claimed on appeal that the DNA results didn’t reveal anything that wasn’t already known at the time of trial in relation to Peterson’s role in the crime. In her opinion granting Peterson relief and ordering a new trial, the Honorable Janet Allen wrote:
Again, the prosecution fails to recognize the significant difference between the argument that it made at Defendant’s trial that he could be the contributor of the semen on the victim’s shirt and the now known fact that Defendant is scientifically excluded from having contributed to the semen stain.
Police reports suggested no association between Ryan and Peterson, and when new evidence was discovered during a police re-investigation of the case that threw Peterson’s confession into further doubt, the state dropped all charges against him on September 5, 2014.
See Judge Allen’s opinion here.