Crime

DNA testing sought in murder 34 years after accused went to prison

How DNA evidence works

With the exception of identical twins, each person has a unique DNA profile. This makes DNA matching a powerful tool for finding and convicting the perpetrator of a crime.
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With the exception of identical twins, each person has a unique DNA profile. This makes DNA matching a powerful tool for finding and convicting the perpetrator of a crime.

Lawyers for a man convicted of murder in 1983 are asking for DNA testing that they believe will prove he was wrongly convicted 34 years ago.

John Prante was 33 years old when he was convicted of killing Karla Brown, a 22-year-old college student. Brown was beaten, strangled and drowned in a barrel in the basement of her Wood River home in 1978.

Now lawyers for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago and the Innocence Project in New York City have submitted a motion to the Madison County Circuit Court asking for DNA testing, which was not available at the time of the murder, and to run a match on fingerprints found at the scene to a national database.

“They’ve certainly prepared a very detailed motion for the court to consider,” said Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons. “If there is viable evidence that remains, there is an opportunity for the court to allow the defense to have that tested.”

In 1978, Karla Brown was unpacking in a house into which she had just moved with her fiance. She was on the phone with a friend, but hung up because there was someone at the door.

Hours later, her fiance and another friend found her body in the basement, tied up and face-down in a barrel of water, with her entire upper body submerged.

That barrel remains in evidence in Madison County, according to Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida.

“If it’s a capital case, we keep (evidence) as long as the person is in jail or alive, as long as there’s a chance that there’s an appeal,” Von Nida said.

Upon hearing that there may be a request for DNA testing, Von Nida said he verified with county records that the evidence remains secured in their locker. “I talked with my employees, and they recently saw it,” he said. “There’s a barrel, a cushion, some TV trays and a couple of boxes.”

Brown was found naked from the waist down, and semen was recovered from a subsequent rape kit examination, according to court documents. Also recovered were cigarettes, blood on the basement floor and on a couch cushion, scrapings under Brown’s nails, and fingerprints on a coffee carafe placed in the rafters of the basement.

Police believed the killer may have used the coffee carafe to transport water down into the barrel in the basement.

Von Nida said he is confident there is more than enough evidence in storage to comply with the request. “They need such miniscule amounts to get DNA now, that they should be okay to get that,” he said.

According to news reports at the time, Prante was convicted on witness testimony that placed him at a friend’s house next door on the day of the murder, and impressions of a bite mark on Brown’s neck.

But that bite mark has been controversial, found on the exhumed body two years after Brown’s death and compared via black-and-white photographs. At the time, dental experts disagreed whether the bite mark matched Prante’s teeth: two experts testified for the prosecution that they matched; and two testified for the defense that they might not even be bite marks at all, much less matching them to Prante.

The motion also says that more than two dozen wrongful convictions have been based on bite mark testimony, some involving the same expert witnesses who testified at Prante’s trial. Drs. Homer Campbell and Lowell Levine, who both testified on behalf of the state that the bite marks in the photograph matched Prante’s teeth, also testified in four other cases involving bite marks that were eventually overturned as wrongful convictions.

Gibbons said the viability of bite mark evidence has been called into question in more recent years. “It is not viewed as reliable as it once was,” he said. “DNA is much more reliable.”

The state’s attorney at the time was Don Weber, who is still a practicing attorney in Madison County. He and journalist Charles Bosworth Jr. co-authored a book titled “Silent Witness” about the case, and maintains he believes Prante is “100 percent guilty.”

“This is intellectual malpractice by some eggheads from Chicago,” Weber said. “I think this is a vast waste of investigative resources that should be used to solve unsolved cases in Madison County.”

Weber said he relied heavily on a psychological profile developed by John Douglas, who worked for the FBI’s behavioral science unit from 1977 to 1995 and became famous as a profiler. He said Douglas predicted Brown’s killer would want to know what was going on in the case but wouldn’t want to be a suspect, and predicted Prante’s personal characteristics down to the model and color of car he drove. Weber said Douglas’s profile fit Prante in every respect.

“I’m afraid this case is too complex for the eggheads in Chicago to comprehend,” Weber said. “They should stick to unsolved cases and leave the solved cases alone.”

Gibbons said he does not intend to oppose the motion for further testing; assuming the case is strong, he said, further testing will only provide stronger proof of Prante’s guilt.

“Our job is to do justice and to see justice done,” Gibbons said. “We’re not afraid of having evidence tested. … In the unlikely event that the evidence points at the potential guilt of another individual, we’d address that at that time.”

But Weber said he felt that was “laying down on a defense motion when they should be acting as the prosecution.” He pointed out that none of the current staff working in the state’s attorney’s office were involved in the case, as it happened so many years ago. “It’s really unfortunate that they made a decision like that without consulting the person who prosecuted the case,” he said.

Prante is now 67 years old and still in custody in Pinckneyville Correctional Center, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. He is eligible for parole in December 2019 and projected discharge is 2022.

Gibbons said this is only half of the 75-year sentence because Prante’s conviction took place before the truth-in-sentencing laws that require certain felony sentences, including murder, to be served at 100 percent.

According to the filing, Prante has always maintained his innocence of the murder and passed a polygraph test. However, polygraph results are not admissible in court. Prante appealed in 1993 requesting DNA testing, which was dismissed by the court as not having been filed in a timely manner.

The motion from the lawyers for the Innocence Project and Exoneration Project indicate they are nonprofit legal service organizations and are representing Prante pro bono.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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