After spending 36 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Rodney Lincoln had a lot to share with UMKC Law School students about wrongful convictions and the mishandling of his case.
The Midwest Innocence Project Student Organization (MIPSO) hosted Lincoln in the law school student lounge last Wednesday, giving the 73-year-old father of four a platform to speak out against the Missouri Department of Corrections and the criminal justice system as a whole.
“I really and truly believe that the best way I can fight wrongful conviction is by telling my story,” Lincoln said.
Lincoln was wrongfully convicted of the murder of JoAnn Tate and an attack on her two young daughters that occurred on April 27, 1982. His conviction was credited to the testimony of a crime lab analyst who concluded a hair found at the crime scene matched Lincoln’s hair, as well as the eyewitness testimony of Melissa Tate. Melissa testified that Lincoln was the perpetrator after police showed her a picture of him.
Sean O’Brien, one of Lincoln’s attorneys and a law professor at UMKC, said, “Lots of evidence was tested from the scene of the crime, and nothing linked him to the scene of the crime other than the testimony of the 7-year-old girl.”
Six years after Lincoln was convicted, DNA testing concluded he couldn’t be tied to the scene of the crime. His conviction was appealed, but a judge ruled that the lack of DNA evidence alone wasn’t enough to rule Lincoln out as the murderer.
Melissa would recant her testimony 33 years after Rodney was convicted, but a different judge ruled her recantation wasn’t credible.
Despite the lack of DNA evidence and the only eyewitness to the crime advocating on his behalf, Lincoln’s case was denied a review by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2017. It wasn’t until his sentence was commuted by former Gov. Eric Greitens in June that he was released from prison.
Lincoln spoke about what it was like spending time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
“You’re not just Rodney Lincoln when you’re incarcerated. You’re Rodney Lincoln 48563,” he said, referring to his Department of Corrections ID number.
Brody Sabor, treasurer of MIPSO and a second-year law student, said learning of Lincoln’s story inspired him to pursue justice.
“Going into law school, I always knew I wanted to be in the area of criminal defense, but you can go a lot of different places in that space,” Sabor said. “Hearing from people like Rodney Lincoln and Lamont McIntrye inspired me to pursue justice for others.”
Brandon Williams, an attendee of the event and a third-year law student, said reforms need to be made to improve the criminal justice system.
“Lincoln suggested that eyewitness identification needs to be reformed, but personally I believe it starts with the police departments as the investigative body,” Williams said. “They refer cases to the prosecutor, and with a proper investigation, innocents like Lincoln should be found before they are convicted.”
As for Lincoln, his number one aspiration now that he’s a free man is simple.
“My name is now the free Rodney Lincoln, and I’m going to stay the free Rodney Lincoln.”