Thirty years ago today Gary Dotson, a hapless high school dropout from a downscale Chicago suburb, made history, becoming the first person in the world to be exonerated by DNA.
The anniversary seems an appropriate time to reflect on the wrongful conviction and a crucial lesson that judges and prosecutors should have—but that all too many haven’t—learned from it.
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By way of background, Dotson was convicted in May 1979 by a jury in the Markham branch of the Cook County Circuit Court of a rape that in fact had not happened.
The wrongful conviction rested on the testimony of his supposed victim, 16-year-old Cathleen Crowell, who claimed to have been abducted by three young men on July 9, 1977, and raped by one of them—Dotson, then 20. At the trial, Crowell said of Dotson, “I’ll never forget that face.”
Dotson’s defense was that Crowell had identified the wrong man from a police mug book, in which his photo appeared as a result of a juvenile arrest.
No one questioned that Crowell had been raped.
But in 1985—three years after Crowell had married a high school classmate, changed her last name to Webb, moved to New Hampshire, and become a born-again Christian—she recanted.
She said she had faked the rape to create a cover story for her parents in the event that she had been impregnated by her boyfriend—a fear that had not come to fruition.
Her recantation was deemed a fake by, among others, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorneys J. Scott Arthur, Raymond Garza, and Margaret Frossard, by Judge Richard L. Samuels, before whom Dotson had been tried and who had imposed an indeterminate sentence of 25 to 50 years in prison, by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, by Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, by a three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court, and by Chicago Tribune reporters Ann Marie Lipinski and John Kass.
With such powerful forces insisting that Webb’s recantation somehow was the product of a deranged personality, Dotson’s conviction stood for four years after the recantation—until Aug. 14, 1989, when DNA exonerated him, throwing egg all over the faces of those who up until that point had insisted that Dotson was guilty.
In their misjudgment, the naysayers had relied on a myth that recantations are categorically unreliable, as exemplified by a 1931 Illinois Supreme Court decision in the case of a man named Simon Marquis, who had been convicted of the murder of his son.
After the conviction, the daughter of the defendant—and sister of the victim—recanted her trial testimony implicating her father. The recantation had little credibility, but rather than confining its decision to that, the Illinois Supreme Court went further, opining that recantations in general are unreliable.
The Marquis decision was cited by the Illinois Appellate Court in holding not only Webb’s recantation unreliable, but also holding recantation unreliable in a number of cases that followed—including, infamously, the case of Gordon (Randy) Steidl, an innocent man who had been sentenced to death on the testimony of two witnesses who eventually recanted.
Nationwide, approximately one in three of persons who have been exonerated by DNA had been convicted in whole or part on the testimony of witnesses who recanted.
Yet prosecutors and judges continue to maintain that recantations in general are not to be believed.
That needs to change.
Rob Warden is cofounder of Injustice Watch.