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Hope for the Innocent in Prison

Hope for the Innocent in Prison

In October 1996, an assailant broke into the home of a 68-year-old widow, Geraldine Montgomery, in rural Kalkaska, Minnesota. She was beaten and raped, then placed in the trunk of her car with the engine running, and left to die of asphyxiation.  The perpetrator wiped away all fingerprints, but two semen samples were found on the victim and tested for DNA.

Police interviewed more than 100 people in the area, including Jason Anthony Ryan, who was eliminated as a suspect when he passed a polygraph test. A saliva sample collected from Ryan was never tested. Six other men underwent DNA testing, which excluded them as suspects.

A jailhouse snitch fingered another young man who was in jail on a statutory rape charge. That young man, Jamie Lee Peterson, had a history of mental illness. He confessed to the crime after a series of police interrogations. Although he immediately recanted, the initial confession was used to convict him.

It was not until December 2013 that Ryan was arrested for the murder of Geraldine Montgomery after Ryan’s DNA profile was matched to the DNA sample collected at the murder scene. 

How do people end up in prison for crimes they did not commit?

Certainly not everyone in prison is innocent, but the criminal justice system makes its share of mistakes. Problems that lead to wrongful convictions include:

  • Inadequate forensic testing of crucial evidence
  • Mistaken eyewitness identifications
  • Incompetent defense counsel
  • Misconduct by the prosecution or police
  • Jailhouse snitches who lie to gain favor from their jailers
  • Perjured testimony  

In the Montgomery murder, the police mounted an extensive investigation, but they never tested the saliva swab obtained from Ryan. That mistake, coupled with a tip from a jailhouse snitch, led them to arrest — and ultimately convict — the wrong man.

The Minnesota Innocence Project seeking justice

Ryan’s arrest for the Montgomery murder 17 years after the fact was not a coincidence. DNA testing using new technology was conducted this year at the behest of the Minnesota Innocence Project, which took the case at the request of Peterson’s former counsel. The DNA tests not only implicated Ryan but completely excluded Peterson.

If you have questions about post-conviction remedies in Minnesota, seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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