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Christopher Dunn proved his innocence. Missouri law demands he die in prison

A portrait of Christopher Dunn and his wife Kira.
Kira Dunn
Christopher Dunn and his wife, Kira, in December inside the Southwest Correctional Center.

Christopher Dunn has spent more than 30 years in prison for a 1990 murder in St. Louis. The evidence of his guilt was built on the testimony of two adolescent boys, ages 12 and 14. Decades later, both witnesses recanted their testimony, setting the stage for a dramatic court hearing that would prove Dunn’s innocence.

In September 2020, Texas County Circuit Court Judge William E. Hickle ruled, “This court does not believe that any jury would now convict Christopher Dunn under these facts.”

But Hickle also wrote that Dunn’s original conviction still stands under Missouri law.

Christopher Dunn and limits of innocence in Missouri

“When you have a case that's fairly tenuous to begin with, and the only evidence is discredited, you have a very strong case that you're innocent,” said Kent Gipson, Dunn’s attorney, on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Gipson explained that Dunn’s legal claim of “freestanding innocence” didn’t meet the standard for reversing his conviction. Under Missouri law, only in death penalty cases can a person use a claim of innocence to try to persuade a court to reevaluate a conviction. On those grounds, the Missouri Supreme Court also rejected Dunn’s motion to hear his case and consider his innocence in 2021.

“It's a perverse thing,” Gipson said. “You've got someone in prison if there's clear and convincing evidence that they're innocent.”

In a phone interview Wednesday morning from the Southwest Correctional Center, Dunn reflected on the yearslong effort to locate the witnesses from his trial who could prove his innocence.

“I knew that I was innocent, but to hear someone finally come forward and admit that they lied on me, and how they lied, and how they influenced the other people to say that I was the perpetrator? To hear them say that, to vindicate me, it was a feeling like no other,” he said. “In that moment, I felt like I finally did it, I finally cleared my name.”

Dunn also points out that justice has not been done for the family of Recco Rogers, whose death on May 19, 1990, led to Dunn’s arrest and conviction. “By holding me in prison, Recco Rogers is not being afforded the justice that he deserved,” he said.

The law’s inability to consider a claim of “freestanding innocence” outside a death penalty case leaves Dunn in a curious position. On paper, he is a convicted murderer whose sentence all but guarantees death behind bars. However, his conviction no longer has any evidence to support it — yet, it remains in force.

On the day of the 2018 court hearing when the two witnesses took the stand to recant their 1991 testimony, Dunn’s wife was in the audience. She was anticipating her husband’s release. It didn’t happen.

“We really did think that he would walk out of there that day,” Kira Dunn said Wednesday. “We had long discussed the outfit he would wear — I had that ready. The family was there. We were so hopeful that day.”

Even though Missouri’s courts refuse to act on Dunn’s innocence, there’s another option that could lead to his freedom: Under a 2021 state law, prosecutors can initiate special hearings to consider wrongful convictions. The process has already led to the release of Kevin Strickland in 2021, 43 years after he was sent to prison for a triple murder he did not commit.

The same process has already debuted in St. Louis. Last month, a judge presided over a five-day hearing to evaluate arguments for the innocence of Lamar Johnson. A decision in that case is expected to be announced later this month.

“I'm hoping [Dunn] is next in line,” said Gipson. “I guess how the prosecutor proceeds might depend on … if Lamar Johnson is exonerated. Hopefully, she’ll do the same for other innocent prisoners, because we know from experience, and just some of the problems with the criminal justice system in St. Louis, that he's far from the only innocent person that was convicted in St. Louis city in the last 30 years or so.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org. 

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."