Advanced DNA Technology Helps Free Innocent Georgia Man After Nearly 18 Years in Prison
On January 8, 2020, Kerry Robinson began the New Year and a new life as he left Georgia’s Coffee Correctional Facility a free man. He had spent nearly 18 years in prison for a brutal group rape he had nothing to do with.
As science in general and DNA scientific techniques in particular advance, so have avenues available to innocence projects across the nation to exonerate wrongfully convicted citizens. The latest scientific advance called probabilistic genotyping was championed by the Georgia and Idaho Innocence Projects to secure exoneration and release from prison for Robinson.
Sometime prior to 1993, the law-abiding teen Robinson reported Tyrone White to police for an alleged crime. On February 3, 1993, White and two teenage accomplices broke into a 42-year-old woman’s home and raped her. A sexual assault kit (“SAK”) was assembled at the hospital, and the victim gave a detailed comprehensive statement. DNA testing was performed on the fluids found in the SAK. Prominently identified was White’s and the victim’s DNA with the remaining mixture showing two more donors, but with the technology available at the time, those two were not able to be identified to a certainty.
The victim positively identified White and one of the other rapists from their photographs in a school yearbook. She stated that White was in charge of the other two, calling the shots.
Police arrested White and his cohort while the lab did DNA tests, and the investigation was on.
White, apparently remembering Robinson’s earlier report about him to police, now turned the tables. He told investigators it was actually Robinson rather than the person the rape victim had positively identified that had participated in the rape. Police and prosecutors took White’s word for this to the point of cutting White a deal for less punishment to testify against Robinson in court and releasing one of the actual rapists.
According to the DNA analysis, there was a mixture in the SAK’s contents. The two positively identified persons in the mixture that then current technology was able to separate at that time were White and the victim. The remainder had a few markers common to the human race but, according to which expert was consulted, could or could not be attributed to Robinson. Markers further indicated another person as well, which served to also corroborate the victim’s statement, but there is no word as to whether that person has ever been identified to date. The case languished for nine long years before being going to trial. There was the testimony of the victim that solidly inculpated White, as well as the DNA results. Then there was White’s testimony, conflicting nearly everything the victim testified about, thus wholly incredible and unbelievable. The deciding factor in the jury’s verdict against Robinson came from testimony by a DNA analyst employed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (“GBI”).
The “left over” DNA in the mixture that had not been attributed to any specific individual was not enough to identify Robinson. Even though the analyst initially testified to this, under continued questioning, it morphed into telling the jury “there was a “very, very low” likelihood that similarities between the DNA mixture and Robinson’s DNA could be explained by random chance.” After the jury found him guilty, Robinson was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
Soon after his conviction, attorneys Rodney Zell and Jennifer Whitfield of the Georgia Innocence Project (“GIP”) began a 15-year long campaign to free Robinson. They were assisted by Idaho’s Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian who is also connected to Idaho’s Innocence Project. Hempikian had conducted a study on people conducting crime lab interpretations with DNA mixtures. He concluded these were “‘problematic’ because of subjective bias” then “concluded that “subjective analysis of complex DNA mixtures has not been established to be foundationally valid and is not a reliable method.”
With Hampikian’s help, the GIP attorneys put together a team of 17 experts. Of those, only one agreed with the GBI expert’s testimony, four were unable to conclude a result, and twelve stated Robinson’s DNA was not in the SAK mixture. Hampikian also took DNA from four local television employees whose DNA had more random markers matching the SAK mixture than Robinson’s DNA did. Buoyed by these data, the GIP moved for a habeas corpus hearing in 2012. The presiding judge dismissed the case, calling it essentially a “battle of the experts” despite the heavy weight of the evidence falling on Robinson’s side.
All was not lost at that evidentiary hearing. The science was in Robinson’s favor.
An objective method of DNA mixture analysis, compiled by advanced mathematics and computer science, produced what is known as probabilistic genotyping software. The GBI itself adopted this methodology for its laboratories in 2018.
A reevaluation of the DNA mix in Robinson’s case using the new software conclusively proved that the remaining DNA in the SAK mixture was not his. The district attorney’s office joined Zell and Whitfield in a proceeding wherein Judge Brian McDaniel exonerated Robinson and vacated his conviction on January 8, 2020.