ST. LOUIS — DNA evidence that helped free a St. Louis man imprisoned for the rape of a 14-year-old girl in the 1980s has been used to identify a new suspect in the case.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that DNA evidence now points to 55-year-old Johnnie Moore as a suspect in the 1985 case in which the girl was taken at knifepoint to a vacant garage and raped. Moore has a history of attacks against women.
Lonnie Erby spent 17 years in prison for the crime until DNA tests exonerated him eight years ago.
Moore goes to trial Sept. 26 on two counts each of forcible rape and sodomy.
The rape of the girl 26 years ago was the first in a string of sexual assaults in north St. Louis from July to October 1985. Victims looking at a police lineup identified Erby as the attacker. He was sentenced to 115 years in prison but was freed in 2003 after the Innocence Project took up his case.
Moore became a suspect after his DNA was matched in the CODIS national database. Along with the July 1985 attack on the 14-year-old, he is accused of assaulting a 16-year-old girl three months later, again with a knife and again in a vacant building.
Sean O'Brien, a board member of the Midwestern Innocence Project, said one in every three exonerations it obtained led to new convictions. Often, he said, the same evidence that frees one man convicts another.
"Any time there is an innocent man who has been convicted of a crime, that means the real perpetrator is on the loose," O'Brien said. "Cases like this should point the way to any prosecutor questioning the wisdom of running DNA for crooks."
Missouri began collecting DNA from prisoners in 2005. A DNA sample was taken from Moore in February 2006, when he was serving a 35-year sentence for robbing two women at knifepoint in 1986. He was indicted in the sexual assault cases in October.
The attack on the 14-year-old was the first of many in the city in 1985. Another 14-year-old was raped in an alley. Two young women, ages 17 and 18, were forced at gunpoint into an alley by a gunman who took $15 and began to sexually assault one of them before they escaped. A 16-year-old was raped in another vacant building.
Police encountered Erby three days after that final attack and thought he matched the description of the attacker.
"Call it a gut feeling if you will, but I had worked the day of the rape and remembered the description," one officer told the Post-Dispatch at the time.
Each of the victims identified Erby, of Jennings, as their attacker. He had a police record that included a guilty plea to a charge of first-degree sexual assault in 1982, for which he served two years.
Erby continued to protest his innocence even while in prison. In 1998, the New York-based Innocence Project asked a St. Louis judge to order that evidence against him be compared with his DNA, a process only recently allowed by state law.
After a circuit court judge ordered tests and an appeals court upheld the order, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce ultimately consented. Results came back in Erby's favor in 2003.
Joyce said she had learned from the Erby case. That year, she launched a review of about 1,400 pre-DNA-era convictions.
Erby did not return calls seeking comment about charges against Moore. His sister, who lives with him, told the Post-Dispatch that he didn't like to talk about what happened.