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Gardner begins effort to free a man she says is innocent of murder

A portrait of Christopher Dunn and his wife Kira.
Kira Dunn
Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has filed a petition to vacate the 1991 conviction of Christopher Dunn, shown with his wife, Kira, at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri, in December.

A man who has been in prison for more than 30 years for a murder almost everyone agrees he did not commit is getting a chance at freedom.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a petition late Friday to vacate the conviction of Christopher Dunn.

“For the last 33 years, Mr. Dunn has been incarcerated for a crime in which there is clear and convincing evidence he did not commit,” Gardner said in a statement posted on Twitter on Monday. “We have an ethical duty to work to correct this injustice. We are hopeful his wrongful conviction is set aside for the sake of Mr. Dunn, his family, and the people of the city of St. Louis.”

Dunn’s wife, Kira, said she woke up Monday to the news.

“I’m very grateful,” she said.

Kent Gipson, who represented Dunn during his initial attempts to prove his innocence, said the announcement “came as a bolt from the blue.”

In a phone call on Friday, Dunn was “really down in the dumps, and almost ready to give up hope,” Gipson said. He reminded Dunn that Gardner still had another three weeks before she left office.

“I guess I turned out to be prophetic,” he said with a laugh.

Dunn is now represented by lawyers from the Missouri Innocence Project.

Dunn was 19 when he was convicted of the May 18, 1990, murder of Ricco Rogers based solely on the testimony of two adolescent boys who later recanted. In 2020, a judge in Texas County, where Dunn is in prison, ruled “this court does not believe that any jury would now convict Christopher Dunn under these facts.”

But the Missouri Supreme Court has held multiple times that it will only recognize freestanding innocence claims in death penalty cases and refused to consider Dunn’s. Freestanding innocence claims are those that do not require an underlying finding that the defendant’s constitutional rights were violated in the process.

That meant Dunn’s only hope was a 2021 law that allows prosecutors in the jurisdiction where someone was convicted of a crime to ask a court to set aside the conviction. It’s the same process that’s freed Lamar Johnson and Kevin Strickland.

The law gives state Attorney General Andrew Bailey the right to participate in the process. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether he would fight the move.

Gipson said his natural pessimism means he is worried that whoever takes over for Gardner after she resigns June 1 will stop the process. Even if it continues, he said, it will necessarily be low on the list of priorities.

“But I think that any fair-minded prosecutor looking at the facts of this case, regardless of their politics, will see that this is a case where an innocent man is in prison,” he said.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.