Best Evidence

George Allen claims police made him confess to rape and murder. Twenty years after Allen was convicted, his last hope hinges on a DNA test.

Herb Riley was a veteran cop with a reputation for getting people to confess. He'd served on the force for 27 years, seventeen of them in homicide. He retired as a sergeant in 1986. When he died in 1996, the Post-Dispatch described him as a detective "who used his smooth gift of communicating to get numerous murder confessions."

But Allen's lawyers weren't as impressed with Riley's gift. They noted that Riley showed Allen pictures from the murder scene before the tape started rolling, asked Allen leading questions that provided details from the crime scene and tricked Allen into thinking police had evidence linking him to the scene.

After the confession, investigators worked feverishly to obtain the physical evidence that would back up the confession, but they couldn't come up with anything.

William Hood
Murder victim Mary Bell
St. Louis Mercantile Library/UMSL
Murder victim Mary Bell

In 1982, DNA evidence wasn't part of the criminal-law landscape. The first time a federal court admitted DNA evidence was 1986. The Missouri Supreme Court didn't approve its use until 1991.

So the lab work that was done to find Bell's murderer was primitive by today's standards. Police criminalists, however, were able to do a basic test on the seminal fluid found in Bell's apartment. Some men secrete blood antigens into their semen and other body fluids, but the seminal fluid found at the crime scene came from a nonsecretor, tests showed. A saliva sample taken from Allen also showed he didn't secrete antigens from his blood into other body fluids. The results didn't rule out Allen, but neither were they conclusive. Joseph Crow, the police-department criminalist who performed the test, was asked at trial what percentage of the male population would have the same results that Allen had. "About 89 to 90 percent," Crow said.

Investigators also analyzed fibers from Bell's home and Allen's. They were hoping to find fibers from Allen's home inside Bell's apartment. They didn't.

And despite Allen's claims during the confession that he hit Bell in the head, Dr. Elizabeth Laposata, a forensic pathologist with the St. Louis medical examiner's office, said that when she examined Bell's head for evidence of trauma, "there was nothing significant there" -- no injury to her head that would've made her lose consciousness.

And Allen had his own alibi witnesses.

Allen lived with his mother and sister in University City, a little more than ten miles from Bell's apartment. His mother, Lonzetta Taylor, testified that her son was home the morning of February 4. Around 8 or 8:30 a.m., she rousted him from his room to help push his sister's car out of the snow. When Taylor decided to walk to the grocery store, sometime between 11 a.m. and noon, she said, Allen was still at home. And when she returned from the store, about a half-hour later, he was still at home. She stayed home for the remainder of the day, and Allen was home the entire time, she said. She also said that Allen did not own a car, nor did he have permission to drive her car.

Elfrieda Allen, Allen's sister, also recalled seeing George at 8:30 a.m. on February 4. Joe Randolph, Elfrieda Allen's boyfriend, had been staying at the home because his car was stuck in the snow. When he woke, Randolph said, around 10 or 10:30 a.m. -- the approximate time of Bell's murder -- he saw Allen walking around the house.

At the time Allen was charged with murder, the public-defender system sometimes hired private attorneys to handle big felony cases. Douglas Levine had been out of law school for about four years, had practiced with well-known criminal-defense lawyer Charlie Shaw and was a sole practitioner when he was asked to handle Allen's defense.

"They had contacted a couple of attorneys prior to talking to me," Levine says. "One or two people knew [Bell], socialized with her, and they just would not do it. She was loved by everyone."

Levine says he knew Bell, too -- he'd had a case in which she'd been the court reporter -- "but I didn't know her well." He also knew John Bell and Russ Watters "at least on a casual basis."

Before ultimately agreeing to represent Allen, Levine says, he thought long and hard.

When Levine took control of the case, he had a client with a minor criminal history. According to newspaper stories from 1982, Allen had been charged in 1977 in St. Louis County with the crime of assault with intent to ravish. The story from the Globe-Democrat says that the St. Louis County prosecutor knocked the case down to a misdemeanor because Allen was deemed mentally retarded. (That file can no longer be found in the St. Louis County courthouse. Clerks were unable to find the file and said that it must have been destroyed.)

In 1978, Allen confessed to stealing a car. His lawyer claimed coercion, had his client enter a not-guilty plea and asked for a psychological exam. According to the file, one was performed, but the results were not kept in the file. However, once the exam results came back, Allen switched his plea to guilty. Also in 1978, Allen locked his mother out of her house in University City. She called the police, and they used tear gas to get him out of the house. He was taken to Malcolm Bliss Mental Health Center, but his diagnosis is unknown.

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