On November 22, 1996, Tim Chaney was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his step-daughter’s friend, Michelle Winter. Michelle disappeared on the afternoon of April 8, 1995. During the time of Michelle’s disappearance, Tim drove to get his car washed and then went fishing at a near-by lake. On his way home, Tim stopped for gas and noticed a group of juveniles being arrested. The gas receipt and confirmation of the arrest that he witnessed corroborate his alibi.
Michelle’s body was found on April 14, 1995 one hour away from Tim’s house in an undeveloped sub-division. The autopsy report indicates that the victim died of stab wounds to the chest. At trial, the only evidence presented against Tim centered on flawed hair and particle analysis. The prosecution presented evidence suggesting that two of Michelle’s hairs and particles from Michelle’s sweater were found in Tim’s van. This evidence was enough to persuade a jury to convict Tim despite the fact that Michelle had visited Tim’s step-daughter the day she disappeared and the particles could easily have been transferred from Michelle to Tim’s home to Tim’s van. Further, the victim’s clothing, which was damp when officers recovered it, was dried overnight on the floor of a deputy’s garage, where it could have picked up any number of particles. Even with this startling lack of incriminating evidence, Tim was sentenced to death; however, on March 24th, 1998, the Missouri Supreme Court reduced the sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole on proportionality review. Three justices would have overturned Tim’s conviction, finding “No evidence ties him to the crime either directly or by first generation inference.”
Evidence did tie others to the crime. At the time of the murder, Tim and Michelle lived in the same neighborhood as a known sex offender named Wing Cheong Leong. While investigating Michelle’s disappearance and murder, police found bloody women’s clothing and a meat thermometer with possibly blood stains (similar in shape to injuries on the victim’s body) in Leong’s house. Even though Leong admittedly lied to officers multiple times regarding his apparent alibi, the police still ultimately excluded him as a suspect without testing any of the incriminating physical evidence they uncovered at Leong’s home. At trial, the jury was not permitted to consider any evidence regarding Leong because the judge determined it to be too prejudicial to the State’s case.
The Midwest Innocence Project and The Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation Unit have been leading an investigation into Tim’s case. MIP has asked for DNA testing that could exclude Tim Chaney as the perpetrator and likely implicate the now deceased Wing Cheong Leong or another alternative suspect. Recently, lawyers from the New York City office of Ropes and Gray agreed to partner with MIP in the fight to free Tim Chaney.
MIP has filed the documents below in support of Tim’s claims of innocence. Read more about the new developments in hair and particle analysis here. Support the work of MIP in freeing innocent individuals like Tim Chaney by donating here.