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Innocence Project seeks to free local man convicted of murder

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 3011 - In July 1983, George Allen Jr., of University City, was convicted of the brutal murder, rape, sodomy and first-degree burglary of Mary Bell in her home in the LaSalle Park neighborhood of St. Louis.

Now, almost three decades later, attorneys are seeking to free Allen, arguing that he's an innocent man wrongly convicted.

Today a petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed in Cole County court on Allen's behalf. Allen is serving a 95-year sentence at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.

Among other things, attorneys for the New York-based Innocence Project and St. Louis-based Bryan Cave argue in their filing:

  • Post-conviction DNA testing excludes Allen as the source of semen found at the crime scene;
  • Police and lab reports contradict the state's serology evidence presented at trial;
  • A key prosecutorial witness underwent pretrial hypnosis "directed at critical aspects of her testimony."

The petition "sets out compelling new evidence that George Allen is innocent and that he has spent the last 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit," said Olga Akselrod, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project. "We have asked the court to overturn the conviction and to release Mr. Allen."
Added Allen's mother, Lonzetta Taylor: "Words cannot express the pain that this has caused me, my family and my son George."

"I know this has also caused a lot of pain to Mary Bell's family, and my heart and my prayers goes out to them," Taylor said. "I pray that her family finds justice and I pray we find justice for George."

Akselrod said they have not had any interaction with the victim's family. "That's something we generally leave to law enforcement and the prosecutor's office," she said.

Memorandum Showcases Doubt

Bell, a court reporter at the St. Louis Circuit Court, was murdered at her LaSalle Park apartment in February 1982. According to a memorandum supporting the writ, Allen was caught in March 1982 several blocks away from Bell's residence after police thought he was a sex offender they were pursuing.

According to the memorandum, Allen is a diagnosed schizophrenic with a history of hospitalizations. Allen eventually confessed, but his confession was contested at trial because he "gave numerous unsure or flatly incorrect answers regarding even the most basic details of the crime."

Three defense witnesses testified that Allen was at his mother's home during one of the biggest snow storms in St. Louis history. The first trial ended in a hung jury. Allen was found guilty in a second trial.

The memorandum says that the state presented police laboratory findings showing "that ABO blood group testing could not exclude Mr. Allen as the source of semen stains from the crime scene, and that semen stains were found in locations in the apartment that were consistent with details given in Mr. Allen's confession."

But it goes on to say that "two previously undisclosed documents show that prior to Mr. Allen's arrest, police in fact had critical evidence that the perpetrator had a blood type that was inconsistent with that of Mr. Allen, and suppressed this evidence from both the prosecution and the defense."

Additionally, Allen's attorneys argue that a witness -- Pamela Richardson -- was hypnotized to remember she called out Bell's name at her door. That was done, according to the memorandum, as an independent corroboration of Allen's confession. Richardson initially said she was "not sure" whether she called out Bell's name.

"The hypnotist's focus was on whether Ms. Richardson called out the victim's name," the memorandum states. "The unreliability of hypnotically enhanced testimony already was well known at the time of Mr. Allen's trials and, just two years later, the Missouri Supreme Court held that post-hypnotic testimony is inadmissible. The police never revealed to the prosecution or the defense that Ms. Richardson's testimony was hypnotically enhanced."

Finally, the writ states that post-conviction DNA testing shows that Allen wasn't the source of any DNA at the crime scene or the semen attributed at trial. The semen attributed to Allen was from Bell's boyfriend, Russell Waters.

In Koster's Court

In a statement, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said: "We and the original prosecutor believe the DNA and other evidence neither confirms nor refutes the jury verdict in this matter."

"Accordingly, we recommended to the Innocence Project that they pursue further legal action with the attorney general and we have advised the attorney general about the circumstances surrounding this case," Joyce said. "At this time, the attorney general represents the state of Missouri on federal habeas issues in this matter."

Joyce's statement went on to say that "there are many differing opinions regarding the 'key facts' of this case, and we believe reasonable minds can differ, which is why legal proceedings are in place to resolve disputes such as those presented in this case."

"We understand that the Innocence Project believes that Mr. Allen was wrongfully convicted. We also understand that the original prosecutor and police investigators are strongly convinced of Mr. Allen's guilt," Joyce said, referring to initial prosecutor Dean Hoag.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster declined to comment on the filing.

Akselrod said that even though Joyce declined to take a position in this case, her office assisted in a joint investigation and consented to DNA testing.

"Jennifer Joyce has not disagreed with our conclusions at this point; she's taken no position and she's leaving it in the hands of the attorney that is supposed to represent the state in these kinds of petitions," Akselrod said.

Akselrod said she hasn't spoken with Koster's office yet. But she added that if his office agrees with the writ, it would "allow the process to go much faster."

"The process is that the attorney general responds to that petition in the court," Akselrod said. "We have asked the attorney general to meet with us prior to responding. And absolutely, the attorney general could read the conclusion and come to the same conclusion that we've come to -- which is that this evidence proves innocence or at minimum that the conviction was unconstitutionally obtained."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.