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Monday, April 30, 2018

After Two Key Witnesses Recant, Convicted St. Louis Murderer Gets New Hearing

Posted By on Mon, Apr 30, 2018 at 9:27 AM

click to enlarge Christopher Dunn, shown here with this mother and uncle. - COURTESY OF KIRA CAYWOOD
  • Courtesy of Kira Caywood
  • Christopher Dunn, shown here with this mother and uncle.

The shot that rang out just after midnight on May 19, 1990, traveled toward a group of teenage boys who were hanging out on a porch on Labadie Avenue in St. Louis' Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. It struck fourteen-year-old Rico Rogers in the head, killing him.

Two of the boys on the porch would eventually testify that Christopher Dunn fired the fatal shot, and St. Louis prosecutors turned that testimony into a conviction.



Now, almost 28 years later, a Texas County judge is preparing to render a ruling on whether Dunn's current fate — life in prison, plus another 90 years — should be thrown out. Dunn exhausted his appeals years ago, but his latest legal strategy, a writ of habeas corpus asking the judge to vacate his conviction, relies on several new pieces of evidence.

Namely, the two witnesses key to Dunn's conviction at trial in 1991 are now claiming their testimony was fabricated and coerced. The first witness, Demorris Stepp, recanted in 2005. And in 2017, Dunn's legal team located the second witness, Michael Davis.

In 1990, Stepp was fifteen. Davis was twelve. Today, both men are incarcerated — Stepp in Missouri, Davis in California. In sworn affidavits, both men claim they knowingly lied to implicate Dunn in the shooting.

During Dunn's 1991 trial, the prosecution reportedly presented the murder as the result of a fight between gang "wannabes." That description is backed up, in part, in the more recent affidavits sworn to by the witnesses.

According to Davis and Stepp, their friend-group was affiliated with the Bloods. Dunn was a Crip. At the time, the notorious feud between the two West Coast gangs carried weight in the minds of the young gang members in St. Louis. In this case, according to the affidavits, Dunn's allegiance to a rival gang made him a reasonable suspect.

In an affidavit signed in 2016, Davis writes that he and Stepp had planned to tell police that Dunn had committed the shooting, even though "from my vantage point, I could not see or identify the shooter."

Later in the affidavit, though, Davis claims that he did express some hesitation about testifying against Dunn. In response, he says, police showed him graphic pictures of Rogers' dead body, and even put him on the phone with Rogers' mother, which "only added to the pressure."

"They continued to push me to testify that the shooter was Christopher Dunn and I eventually testified in court, claiming I had seen Dunn at the time of the shooting," Davis writes. "That testimony was false."

Similarly, Stepp writes in his affidavit that he never saw the shooter. At the time of the shooting, Stepp was facing the possibility of significant jail time for an unrelated robbery, and he claims to have struck a deal with prosecutors to land a more lenient sentence in his own case.

"I lied during trial because the prosecutor said I would go home if I said everything he asked me to say about Chris Dunn to get the conviction," Stepp writes in his affidavit. "I was facing 15 to 30 years in prison so I was given a deal to lie. Who wouldn't have."

Last year, a third affidavit was added to Dunn's cache of evidence — an independent eyewitness who was also on the porch that night in 1990. Though he'd been named by other witnesses interrogated during the murder investigation, he was never formally interviewed until 2017, when a private investigator found him living and working in St. Louis.

"It was not possible for any of us to identify the shooter," the man writes in his affidavit, adding that, had he been called to testify in Dunn's trial, "I would have testified that Chris Dunn's name came up immediately after the shooting as speculation, and from there, people began to believe that the shooter had been Chris Dunn, even though none of us could see the shooter."

Dunn's attorney, Kent Gipson, filed the writ last year, asking the judge to toss out the 27-year-old conviction. The writ is filed against superintendent of the South Central Correctional Center, where Dunn is incarcerated.

In February, Texas County Circuit Judge William Earl Hickle set a final hearing date for Dunn's writ for May 30, though Gipson expects the result of that hearing to be appealed regardless of the outcome. The state, he believes, wants to keep Dunn in prison, and it is not about to give up without taking the matter to a Missouri appellate court. Gipson isn't willing to give up easy, either; he says he'll also appeal a denial to the state appellate court.

Beyond the appeals, a ruling in Dunn's favor would mean the state would have no choice but to let him go or re-try the original murder case. Gipson doesn't think the state would take the second option.

"The prosecutor would get laughed out of court," he says. "When you only have two witnesses and both of them recant their story, what else do you have?"

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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