Hearing to Determine If Missouri Man Who Has Been in Prison for 33 Years Was Wrongfully Convicted

Hearing to Determine If Missouri Man Who Has Been in Prison for 33 Years Was Wrongfully Convicted
Christopher Dunn in an undated photo. (Kira Dunn via AP)
The Associated Press
5/21/2024
Updated:
5/21/2024
0:00

ST. LOUIS—Christopher Dunn has spent 33 years in prison for a murder he has claimed from the outset that he didn’t commit. A hearing this week will determine if he should go free.

St. Louis prosecutors are now convinced Mr. Dunn is telling the truth, but lawyers for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office disagree and will argue for keeping him behind bars. Mr. Dunn, 52, is serving a sentence of life without parole at the state prison in Locking, Missouri, but is expected to attend the hearing before Judge Jason Sengheiser that begins Tuesday.

The hearing follows a motion filed in February By St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gabe Gore. A Missouri law adopted in 2021 allows prosecutors to request hearings in cases where they believe there is evidence of a wrongful conviction.

Mr. Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 15-year-old Ricco Rogers in 1990, based largely on the testimony of two boys who said they witnessed the shooting. The witnesses, ages 12 and 14 at the time, later recanted, claiming they were coerced by police and prosecutors.

In May 2023, then-St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a motion to vacate Mr. Dunn’s sentence. But Mr. Gardner resigned days later, and after his appointment by Gov. Mike Parson, Mr. Gore wanted to conduct his own investigation. Mr. Gore announced in February that he would seek to overturn the conviction.

Mr. Dunn, who is black, was 18 when Ricco was shot to death on the night of May 18, 1990. No physical evidence linked Mr. Dunn to the crime but the two boys told police at the time that they saw Mr. Dunn standing in the gangway of the house next door, just minutes before shots rang out.

Ricco and the two boys ran when they heard the shots, but Ricco was fatally struck, according to court records.

A judge has heard Mr. Dunn’s innocence case before.

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

The 2021 law has resulted in the release of two men who both spent decades in prison.

In 2021, Kevin Strickland was freed after 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 Mr. Johnson—who joined a second man in the killing. A witness testified that police had “bullied” him into implicating Mr. Johnson. And Mr. Johnson’s girlfriend at the time had testified that they were together that night.

A hearing date is still pending in another case in which a Missouri murder conviction is being challenged for a man who was nearly executed for the crime.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell filed a motion in January to vacate the conviction of Marcellus Williams, who narrowly escaped lethal injection seven years ago for the fatal stabbing of Lisha Gayle in 1998. Mr. Bell’s motion said three experts have determined that Mr. Williams’ DNA was not on the handle of the butcher knife used in the killing.

By Jim Salter