Missouri prosecutor seeks to vacate murder conviction, the 2nd case challenged in 2 weeks

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri prosecutor on Wednesday filed a motion to vacate the conviction of a man imprisoned for more than three decades for the shooting death of a 15-year-old boy, the second time in two weeks that a St. Louis-area prosecutor has challenged a longstanding murder conviction.

Christopher Dunn, now 52, is serving life without parole for killing Ricco Rogers in 1990. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gabe Gore said in a news release that the case against Dunn relied on testimony from a 12-year-old boy and another aged 14, both of whom later recanted.

“The eyewitness recantations alone are enough to show clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence in this case,” Gore said. “Justice requires that Christopher Dunn’s murder conviction be vacated.”

A message was left Wednesday with the office of Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey.

On Jan. 26, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell filed a motion to vacate the murder conviction of Marcellus Williams, 55, who narrowly escaped execution seven years ago for fatally stabbing Lisha Gayle in 1998. Bell’s motion said three experts have determined that Williams was “excluded as the source of the male DNA on the handle of the murder weapon.”

The Innocence Project has worked on behalf of both Missouri inmates.

“We are grateful to the Circuit Attorney for his commitment to pursuing justice in Chris’ case and look forward to presenting the evidence of his innocence to the Court,” the Innocence Project and attorney Justin Bonus said in a statement.

In May, then-St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a motion to vacate Dunn’s sentence. But Gardner resigned days later, and after his appointment by Gov. Mike Parson, Gore wanted his office to conduct its own investigation.

Dunn, who is Black, was 18 when Rogers was killed. Among the key evidence used to convict him was testimony from two boys who were at the scene of the shooting. Both later recanted, saying they had been coerced by police and prosecutors.

A judge has heard Dunn’s innocence case before. At an evidentiary hearing in 2020, Judge William Hickle agreed that a jury would likely find Dunn not guilty based on new evidence. But Hickle declined to exonerate Dunn, citing a 2016 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that only death row inmates — not those like Dunn sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — could make a “freestanding” claim of actual innocence.

A 2021 law allows prosecutors to seek court hearings in cases with new evidence of a wrongful conviction. The prosecutor’s filing prompts a hearing before a judge, who will decide if the conviction should be overturned and if the inmate should be freed. Hearing dates for Dunn and Williams have not been set.

If freed, Dunn would not get compensation from the state. Missouri law pays exonerees $100 per day of wrongful incarceration, but only to those exonerated by DNA evidence. The annual cap for payment is $36,500.

The law has led to the release of two men.

In 2021, Kevin Strickland was freed after spending more than 40 years behind bars for three killings in Kansas City after a judge ruled that he had been wrongfully convicted in 1979.

Last February, a St. Louis judge overturned the conviction of Lamar Johnson, who spent nearly 28 years in prison for a killing he always said he didn’t commit. At a hearing in December 2022, another man testified that it was he — not Johnson — who joined a second man in the killing. A witness testified that police had “bullied” him into implicating Johnson. And Johnson’s girlfriend at the time had testified that they were together that night.

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