Michigan is the latest state to have DNA clear a man imprisoned for years for a crime that he did not commit. What is most striking about the case of Jamie Peterson (right) is that lawyers had fight to re-test evidence that could prove his innocence. Prosecutors opposed the simple re-testing of evidence in the case that was not analyzed previously (as have prosecutors in other states). Finally, prosecutors relented and it was shown that it belonged to a man that police had cleared in first-degree murder in 1998. A second man was arrested this week but police insist that Peterson is not cleared. The case also shows the great cost to the rule of law that was presented by the Supreme Court ruling that there is no right to such testing in a post-conviction case. Chief Justice Roberts decision in the 5-4 case in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne allows prosecutors and police to resist such simple testing to prove innocence in cases like Peterson’s. Indeed, the Court has produced an all-too-common double standard for citizens. It ruled in 2013 that police could routinely take DNA samples from suspects to use against them but the same individuals have no right to access to DNA testing to prove their innocence.
Peterson was given life without parole for a horrible murder and rape of Geraldine Montgomery, 68, who was killed in her Kalkaska, Michigan home. Someone broke into her home, beat her, raped her, and then stuffed her into a trunk of her running Buick where she died of asphyxiation.
The two samples only yielded one that could be fully analyzed. When the DNA did not match Peterson, the police then changed their theory and said that he had a partner. Police said that the other sample must be his. His lawyers fought to get the samples retested and finally a new prosecutor agreed, to his credit. It turns out that it could be analyzed and the DNA was not Peterson’s but that of Jason Ryan, 35 (left above).
The other striking aspect of the case is that Peterson was convicted with the use of a jailhouse snitch — a notoriously unreliable form of evidence used by prosecutors when they lack direct evidence. These snitches have been routinely found to lie for benefits dangled out by prosecutors like favored treatment in jail or recommendations for sentence reductions. Since Peterson was mentally ill, it is not surprising that he failed a polygraph. He was then subject to intensive interrogations where police convinced him that he had murdered the woman.
Despite the new evidence, State police 1st Lt. John Card insisted that the case should not be viewed as undermining the credibility of the investigation or the evidence: “There is nothing that they have come across that suggests the innocence of Mr. Peterson.”
Notably, Ryan, then 18, provided a DNA sample but it was never tested after he passed a polygraph. It appears the the polygraphers in the area were equally incompetent.
News accounts say that DNA testing was done on two samples from the murder scene and used to clear six suspects.
As courts address Peterson’s continued incarceration, the public should focus on the prior conduct of prosecutors and police in the area. First as a matter of principle, prosecutors who oppose DNA testing as a general policy should be viewed violating their oath to seek justice. Time and time again, inmates have been cleared after years of obstruction by prosecutors. Even if one pushes aside the question of simple justice, there is the conflict of interest in prosecutors opposing tests that might show that they convicted an innocent man. Yet, even judges have been shown to be obstructive in cases seeking testing where an innocent man was ultimately found incarcerated. The Peterson case demonstrates why all states should require such testing to be available in all felony cases post-conviction.
Second, the use of a polygraph on a mentally ill man seems designed for coercive rather than investigatory purposes. I have handled FBI cases where it was admitted that test were done to pressure suspects (even when they were done in conditions that an experienced lawyer or polygrapher would instantly see as unreliable and unprofessional).
Finally, the case now shows little evidence against Peterson except an inadmissible polygraph and his interrogation statements that he later recanted. While police say that he knew details of the crime scene, the court would have to look closely at the record. Police often record only portions of interrogations that they want on tape and there are past cases where information was slowly introduced in such interrogations by detectives rather than the suspect.
The police and prosecutors are holding the line on their new theory of a two-man crime with one who seems to have left no forensic evidence at the scene (police suggested that fingerprints were wiped down at the scene). They may have as many questions to answer as they do to ask in the coming weeks.