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False Positive

How “science” and “justice” failed Robert Lee Stinson.

Joss Fong/Vox

When I sat down with Janine Geske, former Milwaukee County judge and Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, to ask her about the trial of Robert Lee Stinson, she said, “I think I did everything right at the time. But that’s not to say that I don’t feel terrible.”

Daniel Blinka, the former assistant district attorney who brought the charges against Stinson, said, “The sobering fact is, no matter how careful you are, how cautious you are, how objective you think you are in these cases, you can still be wrong.”

Both Geske and Blinka defended Stinson’s trial attorney, Steven Kohn, as an “excellent” and “top shelf” lawyer.

So who is responsible?

Stinson’s 1985 trial ended with a guilty verdict and a life sentence for the murder of his neighbor, 63-year-old Ione Cychosz. The only evidence tying Stinson to the crime was the testimony of two forensic odontologists who claimed that his teeth matched the bite marks on her body. The advent of DNA profiling would reveal that Stinson was innocent, but only after he had spent 23 years of his life in prison.

Robert Lee Stinson in 1985 and 2009.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA Today/Associated Press

Those forensic dentists, L.T. Johnson and Raymond Rawson, are now defendants in a civil case alleging that they violated Stinson’s right to a fair trial. They maintain that they gave a good-faith expert opinion based on the state of the science at the time.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because several forensic disciplines have fallen into disrepute after contributing to wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project estimates that faulty forensic science was involved in more than 40 percent of DNA exoneration cases.

The 30-minute documentary above is our best effort at piecing together how this happens. It shows how cultural and structural norms in our judicial system leave criminal trials vulnerable to unreliable but persuasive scientific evidence. And it explains why progress has been slow to fortify many of the forensic sciences despite dozens of wrongful convictions.

After he was released in 2009, Stinson received only $5,000 for every year he spent in prison. His civil trial is scheduled for June 2019.

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