Mich. high court revives bid for DNA test in ’88 case
Pontiac — The Michigan Supreme Court said this past week that the Court of Appeals must consider the merits of arguments that blood found on evidence in a 1988 Pontiac slaying should be tested for DNA to determine whether biological evidence might clear a convicted killer of the crime.
The ruling results from the efforts of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project, seeking to free Gilbert Lee Poole Jr., who is currently serving a natural life term without parole for the June 7, 1988, killing of Robert Mejia, 35, of Pontiac.
The Oakland County Circuit Court first denied DNA testing in 2012 based on its interpretation of Michigan's DNA testing law. The Court of Appeals applied the law of case doctrine and denied an appeal last September.
“This is a procedural matter but it is also a big win for our client who has fought 26 years to overturn his conviction," said Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon. "This is the first favorable court decision in his case. It is a tremendous win for our project. Countless students have dedicated hundreds of hours to this case.
“Mr. Poole is simply asking for the opportunity to have material evidence tested that may call into question his 1989 conviction. It’s in the state’s interest to make sure the right person is held accountable.”
Two Oakland Circuit Court judges and the Michigan Court of Appeals have already denied such testing, all agreeing that since blood types were never brought into evidence to convict Poole, then they don't deserve consideration for exonerating him from culpability in the death.
"We cannot conclude that the application of the doctrine here would create an injustice, given that the same issue was examined and rejected previously by two appellate bodies, that there was strong circumstantial evidence of (Poole's) guilt, and that the jury had been fully aware that a particular blood sample could not be linked to either (Poole) or Mejia) and that (Poole's) blood could in no way be connected to the crime," the appeals court ruled.
"Accordingly, in regard to the petition now at issue, the circuit court was precluded from granting the relief requested by (Poole) as is this court, under the law of the case doctrine."
But the state Supreme Court’s recent order only requires the state' second highest court to review the merits of arguments being raised by Poole's attorneys, saying that it was in error for the appeals court to render an opinion based on "law of the case" and that a review should be done in light of both the statute and prior findings of Circuit Court judges.
"We remand this case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the issues raised by (Poole) but not addressed by that court during its initial review of the case," the Supreme Court concluded this month.
Poole was convicted of first-degree murder in June 1989 by an Oakland Circuit Court jury. Mejia, whose body was found in a Pontiac park, had eight stab wounds to the face, neck and upper chest and other injuries consistent with having been in a fight, an autopsy determined.
Poole, now 50 years old, has repeatedly and unsuccessfully claimed that blood found on a stone at the death scene doesn't match the blood type of he or Mejia, indicating someone else was responsible for Mejia's death.
The killing went unsolved for five months before Poole's then-girlfriend told North Carolina authorities he had confessed to killing a man he had met in a bar. The girlfriend said she and Poole had earlier argued over money and he left saying he was "going out to get some money." He returned several hours later scratched up and red-faced, the girlfriend told authorities.
Poole allegedly told the girlfriend he and Mejia left the bar and walked into a wooded area where they had fought and he had stabbed and slashed the victim's throat.
At trial, Melinda Jackson, an expert in forensic serology for the Michigan State Police, testified that blood found on Mejia’s clothing was type O, which matched Mejia’s blood type. There was also evidence that some blood found on stones and grass was type O blood.
Poole has an AB blood type, shared with only 3 percent of the population, according to testimony, and none of the tested blood samples were of AB blood type. A stone found in Mejia's pants had type A, which was not a match with either man's blood type.
The Innocence Project, which began looking into Poole's case 12 years ago, believes that — and other evidence — deserves much further consideration.
"DNA technology is considerably more sophisticated now than in 1989," noted Mitchell-Cichon. "There exists an ability to identify DNA from small blood samples and compare it to thousands of other samples of known criminals. We believe the real killer is still out there and this cannot only serve to exonerate him (Poole) but find the person responsible."