TN exoneration joins growing number of innocence cases
Brian Haas, firstname.lastname@example.org 1:59 p.m. CDT June 2, 2014
Randall Mills didn't rape that 12-year-old girl in March 1999.
It's a truth he bore for 11 years and three months in a Tennessee prison cell. Few believed him until DNA evidence in 2008 proved he didn't sexually assault a preteen neighbor. It was three more years before he was released from prison — and even then he still faced being tried on the charges all over again.
But on April 4, in light of the DNA evidence and a wavering victim, prosecutors in Marshall County finally dropped all charges.
"You're kidding me, man," Mills recalled saying when he got the news. But he had never stopped trying to clear his name.
"We kept on it," he said last week. "I wasn't about to give up on anything until I proved my innocence on it."
Mills' case is one of a growing number of exonerations across the nation. The dismissal came within days of a study published in the National Academy of Sciences estimating that 1 in 25 convicts on death row are actually innocent. It all adds to a growing acknowledgment by both authorities and the public that the criminal justice system doesn't always get it right — and that there are grave consequences.
"It could be that we're at the beginning of a very rapid sea change, or a bit of a ways into it. But there does seem to be a change in attitude," said Sam Gross, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and one of the authors of the death row innocence study. "The number of exonerations that we know about has been increasing. We probably have a reasonably good handle on the most recent ones, although we're probably still missing some."
Amid the growing numbers, Tennessee is looking at resuming executions for the first time since 2009.
DNA, perjury, prosecutor misconduct
The registry has documented nearly 1,400 exonerations across the nation since 1989, with some of the cases dating to the 1950s. These cases have been reversed and tossed out when evidence — DNA, perjury, witness and victim recantations, bad eyewitness identifications or withheld evidence — surfaced that a defendant was innocent.
In Tennessee there have been at least 14 such exonerations, on crimes ranging from assault and bank fraud to child sex abuse and murder. The registry also lists the case of Paul House, who was convicted of murder in 1986 but released from prison in 2008 when DNA evidence raised serious questions about his conviction. Prosecutors in 2009 said they wouldn't retry House on the murder charge. But they still could, meaning House hasn't technically been exonerated and isn't one of the 14.
The registry has collected such cases for only about two years, said Maurice Possley, a senior researcher who finds the lion's share of cases.
"Nobody's ever done this before in any kind of systematic way to try to find these exonerations," Possley said. "We just don't know how deep the problem is. It's the thing that gets re-emphasized to me all the time."
Possley said most of the cases are due to witness recantations or evidence being withheld from the defense.
But the growth of DNA technology in the late 1980s proved to be one of the most important tools in starting the exoneration movement, particularly in sex crimes and murders with biological evidence. In 1992 The Innocence Project was founded to use that technology to clear the innocent.
Since then, at least 316 people have been exonerated nationally through the use of DNA testing alone. Bryce Benjet, a staff attorney for the project, said exonerations have grown into a key part of the national debate on criminal justice issues.
"Part of it is just the number of DNA exonerations," he said. "These are difficult cases to dispute. There's hard, scientific evidence. As those pile up, case after case after case, it just becomes hard to deny that there's a problem here."
He said The Innocence Project is working on about 250 cases at any time.
In 2008 one of those was Mills'.
A girl goes missing
On the night of March 15, 1999, a 12-year-old girl who lived in the other half of the duplex where Mills lived went missing. After a frantic search, she was found locked out of her apartment on the front porch. She told police that she went to Mills' apartment, where he offered her marijuana, sexually assaulted her and then paid her $20.
Police were able to collect the girl's underwear, which had semen stains.
Mills maintained his innocence from the beginning.
At trial a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation analyst said at least one genetic marker — out of 13 — matched Mills. She put the odds of it being Mills' semen at 1 in 290.
Based on that and the word of the victim, a Marshall County jury in 2000 found him guilty of rape of a child, exchange of a controlled substance with a minor and three counts of aggravated sexual battery. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Mills filed multiple appeals, but was rejected in state courts. Then, in 2008, Anne-Marie Moyes, an attorney with the Federal Public Defender's Office in Nashville, was able to get the old DNA evidence retested by an outside laboratory. The results were conclusive.
First off, the analysis said the TBI results were flawed. More importantly, it wasn't Mills' DNA on the girl's underwear.
Mills was released from prison April 26, 2011. Despite the new evidence, he was still deemed a Tennessee sex offender because his name had not been cleared. He couldn't even visit his own grandchildren.
Two years later, a state appeals court ordered new trials on all charges.
By then, The Innocence Project had taken on the case. Bill Ramsey, a Nashville attorney who was on the team with Benjet, said the victim began to change her story. The case against Mills fell apart.
"He got screwed," Ramsey said. "Twelve years, man. Twelve years."
On April 4, Mills was riding his motorcycle when he got the fateful call that prosecutors were dropping the charges.
Ramsey said the next step may be to seek compensation for the wrongful conviction, but Mills didn't want to discuss that.
Instead, he talked about loss. Nearly 12 years of his life, lost to prison. He's lost his career too, and can't find a job because the dropped charges -- even after his exoneration -- scare off employers.
Mills said he even lost his son, who committed suicide a year after he went to prison.
Reach Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 and on Twitter @brianhaas.
||Truth in Justice