Christopher Dunn has served over 30 years in prison for a murder he vehemently claims he did not commit.
He stands not only on his word but on evidence that supports alibi witnesses and the recanted statements of trial witnesses in his case. However, the most substantial support for Dunn’s case may come from the courts themself.
In September 2020, Judge William Hickle issued an order stating: “Coupled with the evidence in the record that petitioner had an alibi, this court does not believe that any jury would now convict Christopher Dunn under these facts.”
So why has Dunn yet to receive a new trial or be released?
Dunn is asserting a “freestanding claim of actual innocence,” which arises when one brings a claim supported by evidence and asserts they are factually innocent of the offenses for which the courts convicted them. They further claim that their incarceration violates their right to due process and that their wrongful conviction violates the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The question bears repeating, why has Dunn yet to receive a new trial or be released?
The answer lies in a 2016 Missouri Supreme Court Case, Lincoln v. Cassady, in which the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the courts only recognize freestanding claims of actual innocence for people on death row, which Dunn is not. As a result of the Missouri Supreme Court’s denial to hear Dunn’s case, his attorneys have filed his case for review by the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of overturning his conviction.
While the U.S. Supreme Court may be an avenue for Dunn, additional avenues must continue to be created to allow access to freedom for those who may be wrongfully convicted.
In 2021 the Missouri Legislature took the first step by passing laws that allow prosecutors to file documents to free wrongfully convicted persons, such as the case of Lamar Johnson — who has been in prison for over 25 years for a murder he claims he did not commit and whose case is pending a decision by the 22nd Circuit Court — and Kevin Strickland — who was freed after spending 43 years in prison for a triple homicide he did not commit.
State Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, this year introduced House Bill 360 – a freestanding innocence bill to allow courts to have the authority to overturn one’s conviction should the evidence supporting claims of actual innocence exist, even if a person is not on death row.
This piece of legislation does not trivialize the court process or its determinations. Still, it allows an avenue for the court to correct itself when it errs in its decisions. Cases such as Lincoln v. Cassady keep people incarcerated because there were no procedural errors during the trial or appellate phase of the case, when in fact, the most significant error of all is the denial to be heard when evidence can exonerate an innocent person.
Written by Kenya Brumfield-Young, Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor