At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Lonzetta Taylor fidgeted in the front row of the Cole County Circuit Court room, with her daughter Elfrieda Allen at her side, as she waited for her son to come through the courtroom doors.
Her son George Allen Jr., 56, had been in prison for 30 years for a rape and murder that new and previously undisclosed evidence shows he didn’t commit. On Nov. 2 Judge Daniel Green ordered Allen’s release within 10 days after he overturned Allen’s 1982 rape and murder conviction based on the police’s failure to disclose numerous pieces of evidence pointing to his innocence.
Allen walked through the doors in a blue-plaid shirt and black slacks, and his family beamed. Judge Green kept the proceeding brief and within minutes signed the order for Allen’s release. Seconds later, Allen walked straight into his mother’s arms as the courtroom roared in applause.
“I hadn’t touched him in years,” she said. “We’ve always spoken behind a glass. There are no words that could describe how that felt.”
However, before that happened, Judge Green told Allen, “I’m not going to be the last judge to review your case.”
Even though St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced last week that she would not retry Allen for the crimes, Attorney General Chris Koster filed an appeal. This means the Western District Court of Appeals, and potentially the Missouri Supreme Court, will review Allen’s case. Though his mother has taken him home to St. Louis, he is not yet a free man.
“While we are relieved that George Allen will not have to spend another day in prison, it is deeply disappointing that Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has filed a meritless appeal further delaying justice for Mr. Allen,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law in New York.
Scheck said the case has uncovered serious misconduct by the lead St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department detective and by the serologist who testified against Allen even though there was compelling evidence of his innocence.
“Instead of wasting resources on an appeal, the state should conduct an independent audit of all the cases handled by the detective and the serologist to ensure that others aren’t wrongly incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit,” Scheck said.
Allen was convicted based largely on his statement that was elicited through an interrogation supervised by Detective Herb Riley and serology evidence that has since been proven false that was conducted by lab analyst Joseph Crow.
Clay slams Koster
After Koster announced his decision to appeal, U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay sent an urgent letter to Koster saying he was “deeply troubled” by Koster’s decision. He asked Koster “in the strongest possible terms” to drop the appeal.
“As you know, Mr. Allen is a mentally ill black man who was wrongfully convicted in 1982 and has spent the last 30 years incarcerated for crimes of which he is actually innocent,” Clay told Koster. “I am astonished by your decision to appeal and to ask for a stay of Mr. Allen’s release.”
In his letter, Clay also noted his concern about the “serious misconduct on the part of the St. Louis Police Department.”
Police initially arrested Allen for the 1982 rape and murder of Mary Bell by accident, mistaking him for another suspect. Rather than acknowledge their mistake, detectives decided to interrogate Allen anyway. Allen, who is a diagnosed schizophrenic and had been admitted to psychiatric wards several times, eventually ended up making a recorded confession, which one of the interrogating officers has since said was questionable.
On the recording of the interrogation, Allen told the officers that he was under the influence of alcohol, and throughout the interrogation an officer prompts Allen to give him answers to fit the crime, often asking Allen to change his answer to do so.
Newly discovered police and lab documents, which were not disclosed to the prosecution or defense, show that police actually found semen samples excluding Allen as the source. The prosecution also failed to turn over fingerprint evidence excluding Allen, as well as a drawing that Allen was asked to draw of the victim’s apartment that did not match her apartment. They also concealed evidence that a witness who was called to verify a small detail from Allen’s statement was forced to undergo hypnosis therapy in order to recall the incident.
“Mr. Allen has suffered a grave injustice that must be remedied swiftly,” Clay stated in his letter.
Koster insists on appeal
In response to Clay’s letter, Koster’s office sent out a statement, which was attributed to Deputy Attorney General Joe Dandurand.
“While we certainly respect Congressman Clay’s opinion about the status of this case, the judge made no finding that the defendant was innocent,” Dandurand said. “Rather, the court found prejudice to the defendant in the original trial sufficient to set aside the jury verdict and finding of guilt.”
Dandurand defended the AG’s right to appeal as part of justice’s “normal safeguarding process.”
“As this office has said previously, the appellate process provides a system of checks and balances on our state’s trial court decisions,” Dandurand said.
“We are confident that, had the court ruled against Mr. Allen, Mr. Allen’s attorney would have availed himself of the same appeals process. We believe the facts and circumstances of the case and the trial court’s findings should be examined by the appellate court as part of the normal safeguarding process.”
In order for the Attorney General to win the appeal, he needs to show that the trial court abused its discretion in granting habeas relief and acted arbitrarily and unreasonably in doing so, Scheck said.
Staff Attorney Olga Akselrod of the Innocence Project said, “We are very confident that the appeal will be denied and Mr. Allen will be a free man soon.”
On Wednesday morning, Allen walked out of the courtroom into a sunny day surrounded by his family and his attorneys Olga Akselrod of the Innocence Project, and Ameer Gado, Dan Harvath and associate Tim O’Connell with Bryan Cave, LLP.
Tom Block, the volunteer prison minister who helped get Allen’s case in the hands of the Innocence Project, was also at his side.
“George has been in prison for 30 years, and I’ve been trying to get him out for 15 years,” said Block, whom Allen’s mother calls a guardian angel. “It’s been a long road.”
Allen could not answer questions about his case because of the pending appeal. However, he made a statement on the courthouse steps.
“I have spent 30 years in prison as an innocent man,” Allen said, “and those have been difficult years for me and my family. But I never gave up hope. I knew that some day the truth would come out, and now that day is here. I look forward to living with my family and getting on with my life. I thank my mother and my family for standing by me all these years. And I thank my attorneys at the Innocence Project and Bryan Cave for helping me. Thank God this nightmare is finally ending.”
When he was leaving, one of his friends asked him what he wanted to do first, Allen said, “I want to go shopping.”