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Friday, July 21, 2006

St. Louis Exoneree Receives Apology from State Prosecutor

This article ran in the St. Luis Dispatch wednesday, July 19, 2006.

Wrongly convicted man is set free

By William C. Lhotka
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, Jul. 19 2006

Johnny Briscoe is a free man today, after serving 23 years for crimes the state now says he didn't commit.Briscoe walked out of a state prison in Charleston, Mo., on Wednesday after serving part of a 45-year sentence for convictions involving a 1982 sexual attack on a woman at a Maryland Heights apartment.

Thanks to DNA testing, authorities confirmed during an investigation that began July 6 that Briscoe was innocent and that the real rapist was already in another Missouri prison.As investigators drove Briscoe back to his family in St. Louis from Missouri's Bootheel, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch called him on a cell phone and "apologized to him on behalf of the county, particularly for the past six years."

Because of snafus in the St. Louis County Crime Laboratory since 2000, Briscoe didn't get out six years sooner, and that, McCulloch said, "is terrible. It is unacceptable."

There was no DNA testing in 1983 when Briscoe was convicted. In 2000 and again in 2001, McCulloch said at a news conference Wednesday, he asked the crime lab to look for evidence in the Briscoe case and other cases where DNA could now be applied to existing evidence.McCulloch said his office was told the evidence had been destroyed.

In late 2001 and again in early 2002, court records show, Briscoe's attorney applied for post-conviction DNA testing. The laboratory reported that the freezer where the evidence might have been kept was searched and that the evidence - cigarette butts - had presumably been destroyed.

In 2004, the crime lab "was inventorying and cataloging everything in the lab" and found the cigarette butts in the freezer, McCulloch said, but his office didn't learn about their existence until July 6.McCulloch aimed his criticism at the crime lab.

"It is just inexcusable that this wasn't found in 2000 or again in 2001," the prosecutor said.

Testing of the three cigarette butts confirmed that the victim's DNA was found on all three but that the third contained DNA that matched a different man than Briscoe - one who is also in the Missouri prison system serving multiple sentences.

McCulloch's staff is reviewing the statute of limitations to see if charges can be brought against him.Crime and punishmentIn the early morning of Oct. 21, 1982, a man broke into an apartment in Maryland Heights, raped and sodomized the victim, she said, but then stayed in the apartment and smoked cigarettes with her.

The assailant asked her what her name was and then told her his name was "Johnny Briscoe," she told police. Subsequently, with police there, he called her apartment and talked to her again saying his name was "Johnny Briscoe."

Police traced the calls to a pay phone near Briscoe's home on Adelaide Avenue near Interstate 70.The woman completed a composite with police that resembled Briscoe, McCulloch said. She also identified him at the trial in May 1983 as her assailant.Briscoe, who had prior convictions for burglary, offered an alibi defense but didn't testify.

Briscoe's 16-year-old nephew told the jury that Briscoe had been home the night of Oct. 20 and was there when he awakened the next morning. They had watched the seventh game of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers.

"Who won?" asked prosecutor Joe Larrew in cross-examination."The Milwaukee Brewers," the nephew replied.

The Cardinals had won the game and the series. The jury took less than two hours in convicting Briscoe of rape, sodomy, robbery, burglary, stealing and three counts of armed criminal action. Judge Bernhardt C. Drumm sentenced Briscoe to 45 years in prison.

Briscoe was then three months shy of his 30th birthday.

First day of freedom Today he is two months shy of his 53rd birthday.On the ride home Wednesday, Briscoe told investigators Dave Ventimiglia and Ed Magee that he wanted to spend at least the day with family members before he talks to the media, McCulloch said.McCulloch said that the man who matches the DNA knew Briscoe from the same neighborhood but that Briscoe had no idea that the man had been involved in the assault.

Prosecutors have also talked to the victim, "who is very upset."

"She has been very traumatized by this," McCulloch said.

The Missouri Legislature recently passed a measure providing up to $36,000 a year for individuals falsely accused and imprisoned. Prior DNA exonerations in the city include the cases of Anthony Woods, who served 18 years in prison; Lonnie Erby, 17 years; and Larry Johnson, 18 years. Steve Toney served 14 years in a St. Louis County case.

In each case, the victim had identified the later-exonerated defendant.McCulloch said he didn't know if there was enough money in the program yet to pay Briscoe.

Briscoe spent Wednesday night at the home of relatives in St. Louis. Friends and relatives came and went or settled on the porch for a while. He declined to speak to reporters until a news conference today, preferring to spend his first free day in more than 20 years out of the limelight.

Greg Jonsson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.blhotka@post-dispatch.com 314-615-3283

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