The story of Wisconsin Innocence Project exoneree Robert Lee Stinson

by Professor Byron Lichstein

Gov. Scott Walker shakes Robert Lee Stinson's hand

after signing Act 206 into law.

On April 8, 2014, Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 206 into law. The act, authored by Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), provides $90,000 in compensation to Robert Lee Stinson, a Milwaukee man who served 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Stinson’s story—and the story of Act 206—is one of tragedy and injustice, but also redemption and renewal. Stinson was convicted of the 1985 murder of a woman found in the alley behind her apartment building. She had been severely beaten and had bite marks on multiple parts of her body. The investigation and prosecution focused on matching the bite marks to a potential suspect. Police investigators settled on Stinson, and two expert “forensic odontologists” claimed to match his teeth to the bite marks. Although there was little other evidence and Stinson consistently maintained his innocence, the jury found him guilty based on the testimony that his teeth matched the marks to a certainty. Stinson’s conviction was upheld on appeal.

For years, the appellate court opinion in his case stood for the proposition that bite mark identification is accepted in Wisconsin courts. The lead odontologist continued to cite Stinson’s case as an example of a prototypical bite mark identification.

Twenty years later, Stinson wrote to the Wisconsin Innocence Project seeking assistance. WIP tested DNA from saliva on the victim’s pullover, which excluded Stinson but matched a convicted offender named Moses Price in the national DNA databank. Four nationally recognized experts conducted a new bite mark analysis using modern computer-aided methods. They definitively excluded Stinson as the person who made the bites: he was missing a tooth in a place where the perpetrator clearly had a tooth. The state stipulated to his release, and prosecuted and convicted Price, the real perpetrator.

Stinson began picking up the pieces from the years he lost, but he faced enormous obstacles: no money, little access to counseling or health care, a 23-year gap in his employment history, electronic court records telling any potential employer that he had been convicted of a murder, and a world that had changed dramatically from the one he knew. He reconnected with the family and friends who were still around, and cobbled together enough support to find a stable living situation. He finished his associate’s degree and found work providing in-home care for his elderly mother.

Stinson also applied to the State Claims Board for the compensation allowed under the law. He was eventually awarded the maximum amount, $5,000 per year capped at a total of $25,000. The board recommended that the legislature pass a supplemental bill providing additional compensation.

Stinson’s story came to the attention of Sen. Grothman, Rep. Kooyenga, and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). They moved a bill forward to ensure that Stinson received $5,000 for each of the 23 years he served. The legislators worked toward unanimous passage of the bill granting an additional $90,000 in compensation. Stinson’s federal lawsuit seeking additional damages is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

Stinson’s case highlights the inadequacies of Wisconsin’s current scheme for compensating the wrongly convicted. The amount is the lowest among states that compensate the wrongly convicted, and provides nothing for education, counseling, health insurance or other basic necessities. The legal standard and process are overly burdensome to the wrongly convicted, people who have already suffered greatly and need immediate assistance.

Apart from Stinson’s bill, a bipartisan group of legislators worked last term to advance wholesale reform to the compensation scheme. The proposed bill received hearings and garnered support, but did not pass before the session ended. The legislators who advanced the proposal intend to continue their efforts next session.

Byron Lichstein is co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. He served as the lead attorney on Robert Lee Stinson's appeal.

Submitted by Law School News on July 1, 2014

This article appears in the categories: Features