Rodney Lincoln has been in prison 34 years for a crime he says he did not commit.
In 1982, Joanne Tate was murdered in her St. Louis apartment.
Her two daughters, just four and seven years old at the time, were both violently attacked.
The oldest would work with police to create a composite sketch and nearly a month later, identifying Lincoln as the murderer.
At trial, prosecutors told the jury they found Lincoln's hair at the home and Tate's daughter, Melissa, testified.
The first trial ended with a hung jury, but the second ended with a conviction and sentence of life for Lincoln in prison without parole.
"I thought that these were just good people doing their job and they just made a mistake and just nobody found out the mistake yet," Rodney's daughter, Kay, said. Since then she determined. "Wait a minute, these weren't just good people doing a good job. They set out to convict an innocent man and they knew what they were doing."
In 2003, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office randomly selected several cases for DNA review.
Lincoln's was chosen. The pubic hair from the scene that was presented at trial did not belong to Lincoln.
Years later, that same office tested the rest of the evidence collected from the apartment. No male DNA was detected on any of it. No match for Lincoln.
Then came a bombshell from the little girl who testified at the trial, now an adult.
Melissa DeBoer told the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office, "He wasn't in my house that night. He was not there. He was never there. I would be willing to take a lie detector or whatever you want but he was not in the house. He did not kill my mom."
Lincoln is still in prison at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
"I blame the justice system, I blame the prosecutors. I blame the detectives, the investigators. I blame the people who knew they were convicting an innocent man," said Kellie Porter, Lincoln's daughter.
For his family, what hurts most is the time lost.
"My kids didn't get to have their grandpa take them fishing. They didn't get to have grandpa take them camping. They didn't get to have grandpa come to their games or their plays at school. He missed out on all the good stuff," Kay said.
Now, they hope the lack of DNA evidence and Melissa's recantation will set Lincoln free.
"There's also no evidence that ties him to the crime at all. The question is how do they possibly think he's guilty," said Tricia Bushnell, legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project. "DNA testing showed the hair was not his and the victim now says it absolutely was not Rodney Lincoln. There's absolutely nothing else that they could have a conviction stand on."
"They have fought since 2003 to protect a conviction with no credibility, no legitimacy and no reason to do so," Kay stressed.
"They was wrong about the print. I was right. They was wrong about the hair. I was right. They said the strongest thing in my conviction was the victim's statement and they're right," Lincoln said. "The strongest thing in my conviction is the victim's statement that I'm not the one that did it."
Lincoln has a message for the judges who will soon decide his fate: "Look at the evidence. If they do that, I'm going home."
The Midwest Innocence Project will present Lincoln's case for exoneration to a panel of three federal judges in Kansas City. The date is not yet scheduled.
We've presented the main arguments from both the prosecution and defense in this ongoing case, including details we could not address in our story due to time constraints.
FROM THE PROSECUTOR'S PERSPECTIVE:
The lack of a DNA match is not enough to prove that Lincoln was not in Tate's apartment that morning.
Circuit Judge Daniel Green determined that Lincoln was a, "prior, persistent and dangerous offender."
Years before Tate's murder, Lincoln was convicted for killing a man.
"The guy had a rock and was going to hit him, dad picked up a rock and hit him first and it killed the man. He didn't intend to kill him," Porter said.
Lincoln added, "We got into another argument. He threw a rock at me, a big rock and he missed. I threw a rock at him, I didn't. Drug his body to the water's edge and pushed him in." When police initially questioned him, Lincoln denied the crime. Days later, after a witness said they saw him with the victim that night, he confessed. Porter wants people to know, "He served his time and he was released."
Questions are now being raised about the credibility of Tate's daughter, Melissa. The prosecutors argue it's been almost 35 years since the crime. Up to November 2015, Melissa never deviated from the story she told at trial.
- Other Suspect
During her recantation, Melissa said a TV special about her mother's murder brought back fresh memories of the crime.
A photo of Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer executed in Texas in 2014, was shown.
Melissa told prosecutors that was the man she now believes was in her home that morning. A jail log found by the prosecution though, says Sells was in prison at the time of the attack.
FROM THE DEFENSE'S VIEWPOINT:
"The hair's not his," Kay said. "Not only is the hair not his, but two other hairs that were found at the scene that were never brought up at trial, they aren't his either. No DNA from Rodney Lincoln. We're like, here you go. You've got all the proof you need." Rodney added, "It's not mine. Now this hair was used to convict me so if the hair is flawed the conviction is flawed."
The defense argues this was the only physical evidence used at trial, stating three experts were brought in to testify about the hair alone. Without a DNA match, MIP says the prosecution could not confirm Lincoln was there.
Melissa DeBoer, Joanne's daughter, worked with police to come up with a composite sketch. She was shown several line ups of 10-13 photos for weeks.
Bushnell said then, "They bring her just two photos and they say I need you to look through the door. If you don't choose the right person the bad man is going to go free and they show her two photos, one of Mr. Lincoln and one of a relative." Melissa picked Lincoln and two hours later, selected him out of a line up.
- Line Up
The MIP also takes issue with the line up. In comparing the composite to the men in this photo, Lincoln is the only one with a short haircut similar to the sketch. Each of the three other men have longer hair.
"Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. We know that from cases where DNA proved someone else did it," Bushnell said.
Two people testified that Lincoln was home at the time of the murder. "Two people verified that I was at home at that time," Lincoln explained.
One was his mother, who he lived with, and the other was his girlfriend at the time.
"The people I worked for testified in court that I was at work on time the next day. I acted no different and I looked no different," Lincoln said.
Prosecutors prepped Melissa for the trial close to a dozen times.
"They manipulated and coached and guided the witness when she was an eight-year-old traumatized child," Lincoln said.
Kay added when she recanted her testimony: "There was nobody in that room who couldn't look at Melissa, couldn't look at my dad and feel the humanity and the emotion and the fact that this is a man's life and that he's been there 34 years for something he didn't do. In my mind I'm thinking I can't believe this is happening. I just cannot honestly believe this. I almost couldn't breathe. Never, ever in a million years did I think that would happen."
Dia Wall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.