ST. LOUIS — A Lee's Summit man whose life sentence and murder conviction in a 1983 prison stabbing were overturned by the state Supreme Court after another inmate confessed is firing back against state prosecutors, who he says are withholding evidence as they press for a new trial.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in August 2011 that the state didn't disclose evidence tying another Moberly prison inmate to a sharpened screwdriver likely used to attack James Bausley. An inmate who identified Reggie Griffin as one of Bausley's killers later recanted his claim, testifying he fingered Griffin in order to get a transfer. Yet another inmate confessed during Griffin's post-conviction appeal to killing Bausley in a prison yard brawl.
Griffin, a 53-year-old St. Louis native, was sentenced to death for the Bausley attack after the state wrongly relied on the prior criminal record of another convict with the same name. He later received a life sentence once the error was uncovered. Eventually, the high court stepped in and overturned the conviction, concluding it was no longer "worthy of confidence."
Eight weeks later, Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Fusselman decided to file new murder charges against Griffin, arguing that new DNA evidence ties him to the weapon used to kill Griffin's fellow inmate.
Griffin was released on bond in December 2012 and moved to the Kansas City area with his new wife. In June, a trial judge in Adair County — where the current case was moved on a change of venue — agreed to remove an electronic monitoring bracelet Griffin had been required to wear.
His lawyers are now asking Circuit Judge Russell Steele to disqualify the office of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, which is assisting in the prosecution, over a 2006 inmate interview by a state investigator that prosecutors acknowledge failing to turn over. In the interview, ex-inmate Paul Curtis "states he did not see (Bausley's attack) and the testimony he gave at trial was untrue."
When Steele asked Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke about that decision at a November 2012 hearing, the state prosecutor responded that since Griffin's habeas corpus petition is a civil procedure, the rules that compel him to share pre-trial criminal evidence with defense attorneys didn't apply.
"I understand that, but the state is someone who wants to be the purveyor of truth," Steele responded, according to trial transcripts. "Isn't it the proper thing for the state to do to disclose that, even if they are under no civil procedural obligation to do so?"
Hawke responded that "the state is under no obligation to disclose."
A Koster spokeswoman did not respond to an Associated Press interview request seeking comments on behalf of Hawke and Ted Bruce, another assistant attorney general working the case. Fusselman, who was out of the office last week, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Griffin, who was initially given a 20-year sentence after a St. Louis jury found him guilty in a 1981 armed assault, said the state prosecutors "don't want to admit they made a mistake."
"They knew I was innocent," he said.
The state's case against Griffin now rests on its hopes to link him to a murder weapon using DNA touch testing, a process criticized by some forensic experts as unreliable. Unlike DNA tests that rely on blood, hair or semen, touch testing uses skin cells and doesn't require a large sample for testing.
The trouble with that approach, Griffin's lawyers said, is that 20 people or more handled the purported murder weapon since Bausley's death, from state investigators and lab technicians to defense attorneys and suspected assailants. Both the FBI and the Missouri State Highway Patrol advise against touch DNA testing unless the object being tested was regularly handled by one suspect and not touched by multiple subjects.
"People think that because forensic evidence is kind of cutting edge, it's without fault, that it's infallible," said defense attorney Dion Sankar.
For now, Griffin lives in limbo, adjusting to an outside world unseen for more than three decades but unable to fully embrace his freedom. He was scheduled to stand trial next week, but the state's DNA request will likely mean a trial in spring 2014 at the earliest, Sankar said.
Steele has approved the state's motion for DNA testing but ordered that an independent lab perform the tests.
Griffin said he spends most of his time reconnecting with his family, including his mother and a 35-year-old son who remain in St. Louis. The felony convictions make finding work difficult, so he tends to stay at home, tinkering with a used car donated by his pro bono law firm or enjoying the small freedoms those on the outside take for granted: getting up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water or walking to the refrigerator — not because he's hungry, but simply because he can.
"I was happy, but it's surreal," he said of the nearly nine months since his release. "When you've been gone for 31 years ... I pinched myself. It's like pretty much learning all over."