Finley: Locked up since ‘86; he didn’t do it

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Had Karl Vinson’s attorney asked just one more question, the Detroiter might have spent the next three decades living a productive life, working and raising a family. Instead, he’s been behind bars since 1986 for a crime he could not possibly have committed.

Vinson, thanks to a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last week, has his best chance at freedom. But the cell doors aren’t open yet. The fact that they’re still closed on him is an indictment of a criminal justice system that too often favors expediency over accuracy, is indifferent to defendants who are poor and black, and is so determined to cover up its own incompetence that it won’t admit mistakes, even when presented with conclusive evidence of innocence.

Vinson’s heartbreaking story began with a horrible crime in 1986. Someone crawled through the bedroom window of a Detroit home and raped a 9-year-old girl while her mother sat unaware in the living room.

The mother, who had a personal grievance against Vinson, then 22, asked her daughter if he were the attacker. She said yes, even though she hadn’t seen him in three years. He was convicted and sentenced to up to 50 years.

Vinson was convicted before DNA testing was available. A forensic precursor of DNA testing was used to test the semen on the bed sheet. Only type-O blood markers were found; Vinson has type-AB blood. But the state claimed Vinson was one of the rare people whose blood type would not be revealed in his bodily fluids.

An evidence expert who testified at the 1986 trial explained to the court how this happens in very occasional instances. But Vinson’s attorney never asked the relevant question of whether the rapist must have been type-O since type-O makers were contained in the stain. At an appeals hearing in 2009, the expert said had she been asked the question, she would have answered Vinson could not have been the rapist. And he would have gone free.

Instead, he was locked away, and for years wrote letters to anyone he could think of proclaiming his innocence. When DNA testing came along, he asked that the stains on the sheet be retested. But by that time, all the evidence in the case had been destroyed.

Vinson finally caught the attention of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. He was retested, and it was confirmed the secretions on the sheet could not belong to him.

The case in 2009 was brought back to Wayne Circuit Court, where instead of embracing the chance to get justice right, prosecutors and the judge offered ludicrous theories, including this one: the mother may have had sex in the same bed with another man, after her daughter was raped and before the police arrived.

The conviction stood, and the decision upheld on appeal. So Vinson’s champions went to federal court, where last week the judges ruled that “no reasonable fact finder would have found him guilty but for constitutional error.”

That error and the willful defense of it cost an innocent man the best years of his life. It’s a cautionary tale affirming why we must fiercely protect our civil liberties. What happened to Vinson could happen to anyone.

Vinson’s case is now in the Detroit federal court. He tells his lawyers when he finally is free, he wants to go to Red Lobster. The Wayne County prosecutor’s office should pick up the tab.