Wrongly convicted St. Louis man sues

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 | 2:49 p.m. CST; updated 4:38 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of years Johnny Briscoe spent in prison, which was 23.

ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis man who spent 23 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit has filed suit against St. Louis County and the officers who arrested him.

Johnny Briscoe, now 54, was freed from prison in 2006 after DNA evidence exonerated him. He filed suit earlier this month in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

"The prime of his life was lost,'' Briscoe's attorney, Burt Newman, said Tuesday. "When he went into prison he was raising two young children. When he got out he had grandchildren.''

Under state law, Briscoe is eligible for up to $36,500 in compensation for each year he was wrongly incarcerated, but he must agree not to file suit. Newman said the compensation falls short.

"Let me put it this way: If you walked up to someone on the street and asked them to go to prison for $36,000 a year, you wouldn't get many takers,'' Newman said.

Spokesmen for St. Louis County and the county police declined comment.

The crime occurred on Oct. 21, 1982, in the suburb of Maryland Heights. A man burglarized the victim's apartment. When the victim awoke, he raped her, then stayed for about an hour and spoke with her. He told the woman his name was John Briscoe. The two shared a Kool cigarette and the rapist asked to call on her again.

When he did, police traced the call to a pay phone near Briscoe's home. The woman later provided details for a composite drawing that resembled Briscoe and picked his picture out of a lineup.

But the lawsuit pointed to several inconsistencies. The victim told police the suspect was a dark-skinned black man, about 5-foot-8, with normal teeth and a mustache. Briscoe was a light-skinned black man and 6-2, had a gold-capped front tooth and a goatee.

Briscoe said he thought it was a joke when he was first approached by police. He was convicted by an all-white jury and said his defense attorney never met with him.

In addition to claiming he was denied the right to a fair trial, the lawsuit contends that authorities pressured the victim into identifying Briscoe as the rapist.

In 2000, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch decided to look at about 10 past cases in which DNA evidence might be available. In 2004, three cigarette butts from Briscoe's case were found in a freezer. Tests revealed the DNA found on one of the cigarettes belonged not to Briscoe but to Larry Smith, who is already serving a life term for another sexual assault.

Newman said Briscoe continues to try and get his life back in order. For months after his release from prison he was hesitant to go out for fear he would be arrested again. Newman said he eventually got over that fear.

Briscoe does carpentry work and renovates homes when he can, but often struggles to find work. He and the woman he was married to at the time of his incarceration are back together. And despite what he has been through, Newman said Briscoe is remarkably upbeat.

"He has an incredible attitude,'' Newman said. "The man is not bitter at all about what has happened. It's an inspiration to listen to him talk.''

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