Prosecutor looks for mistakes in old cases

Monday, August 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:06 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

ST. LOUIS — After landing a job at a prestigious law firm, Jennifer Joyce was making good money with an office overlooking the Gateway Arch — and was miserable.

So, she took a job at half the pay as an assistant prosecutor, sharing a dingy office with three other lawyers and one computer.

“Within a week, I was just in love with the work,” said Joyce, 43. “I went from helping people fight over money to helping them pursue justice.”

Now the city’s top prosecutor, part of Joyce’s pursuit of justice has been to re-investigate more than 1,400 old cases to see if DNA evidence would prove the guilt — or innocence — of the person convicted of the crime.

One of those cases could change the death penalty debate — an investigation into whether a man was executed in 1995 for a murder he didn’t commit. If so, it would be the first known official execution of an innocent person in the United States.

So far, three St. Louis men convicted of rape have been exonerated — each after serving at least 17 years in prison.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, tried for years to convince Joyce’s predecessor as circuit attorney, Dee Joyce Hayes, to reopen old cases. Hayes refused. When Hayes decided not to seek re-election in 2000, Joyce was elected to the post.

Joyce said she spent her first day in office considering Scheck’s request. At the time, he criticized her for not moving quickly enough.

Eventually, her office determined that 1,400 people convicted in St. Louis before 1992 — when DNA technology became widely available — for crimes from robbery to rape to murder were still in prison.

Joyce decided their cases deserved a second look, but with caution. Opening old wounds can be hard on the victims and their families.

She brought in law students, working under the supervision of her staff, to examine all 1,400 cases, determining those in which DNA testing could potentially prove guilt or innocence. She estimated it took about 10 hours to look at each case.

The “DNA Justice Project” is nearly complete — fewer than a dozen cases remain to be looked at. Joyce “recognizes that prosecutors are human like the rest of us, and mistakes can be made,” said Chet Pleban, Johnson’s lawyer.

Now, her office is focusing on what would be a monumental mistake — the potential execution of an innocent man.

Quintin Moss, a 19-year-old drug dealer, was shot to death in 1980. Larry Griffin was an immediate suspect since word on the street was that it was Moss who weeks earlier had killed Griffin’s brother.

Griffin was convicted in 1981 largely on the eyewitness testimony of Robert Fitzgerald, a career criminal from Boston who was in St. Louis under the Federal Witness Protection Program. He was executed in 1995.

Earlier this summer, Joyce was presented with a report on a yearlong study by Michigan law professor Sam Gross that cast doubt on Griffin’s guilt. Among its findings:

  • A police officer who testified in support of Fitzergald’s account now believes Fitzgerald’s story was false. Gross cited other evidence that Fitzgerald, who died last year, had a reputation as an “unreliable snitch.”
  • A second victim of the shooting, Wallace Conners, has come forward. Conners, now 52, was shot in the buttocks, but was never called to testify. He said the government’s witness was not even there — and he was certain the shooter was not Griffin.
  • The investigation, headed by two assistant prosecutors, is expected to take months.

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