Joshua Tepfer works for the Exoneration Project in Chicago, and Dana Delger works for the Innocence Project in New York City. The two groups are working together on the case of John Prante, who was convicted in 1983 of the murder of Karla Brown. They have filed a motion on Prante’s behalf in Madison County Circuit Court, asking for DNA testing and fingerprint analysis that was not available at the time that Prante was sentenced to 75 years in prison.
Q: How do you go about choosing which cases you will take on?
A: Tepfer: “We get thousands of requests per year, and we operate throughout the country. What we’re looking at is if there is a claim of innocence and whether there is an investigative path to demonstrating that innocence that would satisfy a court… In Mr. Prante’s case, he has long maintained his innocence, even when he was facing the death penalty. You’re facing the potential of the electric chair, and people just want to hear you say you’re sorry, and you continue to maintain your innocence.”
A: Delger: “My work is focused on forensic science, a lot of it having to do with bite marks. Because we know bite marks have been wholly discredited, we look for cases where bite marks were a major factor… We’re really asking, could DNA prove this person innocent?”
Q: How many do you have to turn down?
A: Tepfer: “We have to turn down overwhelming numbers, maybe 98 percent of the requests we get. There are many reasons we might turn down a case: the evidence doesn’t support the claim of innocence; maybe they don’t claim actual innocence; or we don’t see a path… to substantiate their claim. It’s sad to turn them down, but that’s the reality. There’s also a capacity issue as well; there are only so many cases we can take.”
Q: What made Prante’s case stick out? Why choose him?
A: Tepfer: “Mr. Prante’s case stuck out to us with the bite mark. It’s something that was concerning to us; ultimately, whatever people say about how much the bite mark influenced the verdict, DNA testing is really probative here. That will dictate the remainder of the investigation.”
A: Delger: “Mr. Prante’s case happens to be one where DNA could prove his innocence… Given how significant the bite mark was to his conviction, it linked him as physical evidence, and shored up by witness testimony…. Given what we know about bite marks, we have to be concerned about these cases. There have been so many wrongful convictions, and scientific bodies who have found bite mark cases completely worthless. When it’s such an important piece of evidence, that’s a case we want to look at.”
Q: The motion made reference to the witnesses, that most of the eyewitnesses came forward years later after there was a major news campaign regarding the case?
A: Delger: “We know more about the science of memory than we did at the time. They came forward only after a huge media campaign… that testimony would be suspect today.”
A: Tepfer: “Memory is not what people think it is. It’s not a tape recorder where you go back and say, ‘This is what happened.’ Memory, like anything, can be contaminated by all sorts of sources, by time, by media influence, by talking to other people. Even if people staunchly believe they have a memory, we’ve seen sometimes it’s not the case. It’s not people lying or trying to trick anyone. It’s just how the brain works and how memories work. In this case, individuals came forward four years later after the media campaign orchestrated by the investigators. It’s certainly possible their memories were reliable, but also possible they were unreliable.”
Q: The prosecutor at the time, Don Weber, has been very critical of this motion, calling it “intellectual malpractice by eggheads from Chicago.” What is your response to that?
A: Delger: “It’s hard to know how to respond to that. Anyone who looks at the new science honestly would have to admit, I think, that there’s reason to be skeptical of these cases. There’s a reason to do what we’re doing here, and that’s to seek the truth…Mr. Weber may have a reputational interest in this case beyond that of a prosecutor because of the book (he wrote), and this was an important case to him. In fairness to him, at the time of trial, he had experts that said there was scientific proof of guilt, but that is not scientific proof of guilt today.”
A: Tepfer: “I think I’ll refrain from commenting, as I’ve never met Mr. Weber… I appreciate being called smart.”
Q: On the other hand, current state’s attorney Tom Gibbons has said he does not intend to oppose the motion, that “our job is to do justice and see justice done.” Is that what you expected?
A: Tepfer: “I have a lot of respect for those comments. I look forward to working with them in re-investigating this case, in determining where the evidence takes us, one way or the other. The majority of prosecutors I’ve worked with have taken the same stance Mr. Gibbons has taken.”
Q: John Prante’s sentence is almost up; he is due for release in 2019, with full term in 2022. What benefit does it serve him, given the amount of time it will take for this motion and any further motions to go through the courts?
A: Delger: “I don’t think you can underestimate what it means to a person’s psyche… to be released as an innocent, exonerated person vs. someone who was paroled out. Regardless of how much time he has left, it’s incredibly important. It’s also incredibly important to the victim, something the family of the victim deserves to know and the community of Wood River deserves to know.”
Q: Is there anything about the work that you do that you’d like to clarify for the public, or any misconceptions you’d want to clear up?
A: Tepfer: “I think there’s a growing understanding that wrongful convictions happen. They happen for any number of reasons… One thing that DNA has done is demonstrate that the criminal justice system is fallible. It’s not ‘all doubt,’ it’s ‘reasonable doubt.’ If everything is done perfectly in a constitutional trial, it doesn’t necessarily mean that an innocent person wasn’t convicted. I’ve personally been involved in close to 20 cases of people who have been exonerated, certified innocent, when they were convicted of crimes they didn’t do. It’s something that happens with a bit of regularity. People like Mr. Gibbons, prosecutors willing to keep an open mind, to look back on these cases and use what we’ve learned, need to be commended.”
A: Delger: “We are seeking justice. We are seeking truth. That’s part of the power of DNA. Whatever the truth is, we will hopefully find it out.”