Robert Nelson was released in June of 2013 after serving nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit. Nelson was convicted of sexual assault and robbery in 1984. DNA testing conducted in 2012 resulted in his release after the Midwest Innocence Project and the Jackson County Prosecutor filed a joint motion requesting his conviction be vacated and the charges dismissed.
The crime and identification
On December 16, 1983, two men forced their way into a Kansas City, Missouri home where they raped and robbed a 25-year-old woman. The following day, police showed the victim photographs of known sex offenders and other men. The woman was unable to identify her attacker.
In January of 1984, an anonymous caller told police that the perpetrators were two brothers named “Ramsey” who were in jail for robbery. Police discovered that 20-year-old Robert Nelson and his brother, O’Dell Nelson, were in jail after being arrested for two robberies. Robert Nelson had also been charged with rape. Although the last name provided by the caller was not Nelson, police put the brothers in a lineup, videotaped it, and showed it to the victim.
The victim made a tentative visual identification of Robert Nelson. When she heard him speak on the videotape, she “positively identified” him as one of her attackers. Although the victim did not identify O’Dell, both brothers were charged with the attack. The charges against O’Dell were later dismissed. Nelson claimed that he was with family members at the time of the crime, and his lawyer filed a notice that he would present an alibi defense, but no such defense was presented at trial.
Unraveling the conviction
On December 11, 1984, Nelson was convicted and sentenced to 98 years in prison. No appeal was filed on his behalf. In 1987, Nelson filed a motion for a new trial; the motion was denied. His appeal of that ruling was denied by the Missouri Court of Appeals.
More than 21 years later, on August 20, 2009, Nelson, on his own, filed a motion for DNA testing of the crime scene evidence. He was denied again. A motion to reconsider the denial was rejected in late 2011. After Nelson’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain DNA testing, a Jackson County court clerk gave a copy of a successful DNA testing motion to Nelson’s sister for him to use as a template to try again.
In December 2011, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office cold case unit independently sought DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case in an attempt to identify the second perpetrator of the 1983 attack.
In February 2012, after reviewing the template motion, Nelson filed another pro se motion for DNA testing. When the prosecution responded that it had already begun DNA testing, a judge appointed the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP) to represent Nelson. Testing, funded by the MIP, went forward. This testing, totaling over $44,000, led to the identification of the real perpetrators.
In August 2012, the Kansas City Police Department Crime Laboratory reported a match between two unknown DNA profiles developed from a robe worn by the victim and the DNA profiles of two convicted felons. One of the new suspects was in prison serving a life sentence for a 1994 conviction of rape, assault, and burglary. No charges were immediately filed against him. The other suspect had been convicted of a drug crime in 2006, but was no longer in custody. He was arrested in Iowa and charged with the 1983 rape and robbery.
On June 12, 2013, the Midwest Innocence Project and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office filed a joint motion requesting that Nelson’s conviction be vacated and the charges be dismissed. Jackson County Circuit Court Judge David M. Byrn granted the motion, stating in his order that Nelson was innocent, and Nelson was released.
Five days after Nelson was released, a Jackson County Court administrator suspended the court clerk who gave Nelson’s family the template motion without pay because of her involvement in the case. The clerk was fired on June 27, 2013, for violating court rules barring provision of assistance to litigants and for talking about the case to attorneys not involved in the matter.
Summary adapted from Maurice Possley’s overview available on the National Registry of Exonerations.