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.

"It was so intense, everything just stopped," Levine remembers. "I don't know if it was after the first or the second trial, but I remember waking up like an electric shock had gone through the system -- I had never had that before.

"It was kind of like a post-traumatic-stress thing, I think."

Levine appealed Allen's conviction. Prosecutors typically turn appellate issues over to the Missouri attorney general's office, and this case was no exception. John Ashcroft, now U.S. attorney general, assigned the case to assistant attorney general Michael H. Finkelstein. The two sides filed briefs, transcripts, exhibits and trial-court pleadings that number close to 2,000 pages.

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

The defense stressed the inconsistencies. The physical evidence at the scene suggested that a white man, not a black man, committed the crime. Allen was initially arrested because he looked like someone else the police were searching for who had been a suspect in the case. Riley lied to Allen about having fingerprints implicating Allen in the crime and showed him photos connected to the crime scene, and he had the opportunity to provide many of the details that Allen would later recount in the confession. Investigators couldn't find any physical evidence that Allen was ever in the apartment, and Allen would've had to walk several miles in twenty inches of snow on February 4 in order to kill Bell.

But the Missouri Court of Appeals' Eastern District ruled in favor of the state and against Allen in 1985. The court held that the police had probable cause to arrest Allen, that his confession was voluntary, that the confession was adequately corroborated and that the state acted properly when it was allowed to present witnesses who corroborated Watters' testimony. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

It seemed to be the end of the road for George Allen.

After his conviction, Allen was sent to the state's maximum-security prison in Jefferson City. In 1989, he was transferred to a new maximum-security facility in Potosi, about an hour-and-a-half from St. Louis.

In a recent interview with the Riverfront Times, Allen says he reconnected with his Christian faith and that it was through the prison ministry that he met volunteer Tom Block.

Block says that in 1996, "I made my rounds, prayed and read from the Bible." During those rounds, he met Allen.

"This other inmate encouraged me to look into [George's] case," Block says. "I've been involved in prison work for a long time. I know a lot of people aren't innocent."

But Block says that he was curious about George's case, and even though the Department of Corrections prohibits people in the prison ministry from getting involved in inmates' cases, Block told Allen to send him a copy of the trial transcript.

"So about a month or two months later, a big package wrapped with brown paper and 37 stamps shows up on my doorstep," Block says.

Block describes Allen as a man with "mental limitations and slowness." And it seemed implausible to him that Allen would walk several miles "in the worst storm in decades"; that Mary Bell, "a cautious white woman," would open her door to a black man; and that Allen could commit a brutal and bloody crime and get back home to University City without being noticed.

On December 16, 1996, Block wrote to the Innocence Project about Allen, and by the end of the year, the group had agreed to take Allen's case. Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal clinic headquartered at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York City's Yeshiva University.

Block says that in 1998, the Innocence Project was told that the evidence no longer existed in Allen's case. The lawyers in New York suggested that Block take the case to Sean O'Brien, a Kansas City attorney who tries to get death sentences overturned on the basis of new evidence. O'Brien didn't have enough time, Block says, so he also tried the Midwestern Innocence Project, headquartered at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school. But Block says that this group was also understaffed and unable to push Allen's case any further through the system.

In late 2002, Block says, he contacted the Innocence Project staff in New York once again because evidence from other cases was turning up at the St. Louis circuit attorney's office. The New York-based group agreed to push for DNA testing once again in the case.

Block also sent St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce a letter, dated May 15, 2003, urging her office to consent to test Allen.

In May, Joyce agreed, though she says that her office's Justice Project had initiated its own review of the case.

Joyce agreed to DNA testing but says her assent shouldn't be construed as "a comment or statement about the strength of the case."

It may take a couple of months before test results are returned in the case, but Joyce says that if Allen is exonerated, it won't necessarily mean that people will harbor an even greater distrust of the system.

"I think it will strengthen people's faith in the criminal-justice system," Joyce says.

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