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US N. California man freed after 15 years in prison for murder he didn’t commit

05:40  14 february  2020
05:40  14 february  2020 Source:   sfchronicle.com

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An El Dorado Hills man who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit was freed Thursday after prosecutors announced they had found the real killer of a 54-year-old newspaper columnist through a genetic genealogy investigation.

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It marks the second time in the country’s law enforcement history that investigators used the groundbreaking DNA technology to free an innocent man, prosecutors said.

Ricky Davis was arrested in 1999 for the July 7, 1985, fatal stabbing of Jane Hylton, his El Dorado Hills roommate. He was convicted in August 2005 of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.

Through the help of the Northern California Innocence Project, on April 15 Davis’ murder conviction was reversed by a judge, but he remained in custody awaiting a possible retrial.

Utilizing similar technology and investigatory techniques that led to the capture of the alleged Golden State Killer, forensic specialists with the Sacramento County crime lab used a DNA profile captured from bite-mark saliva off of Hylton’s bloodied nightgown to identify a juvenile who had been hanging out with the victim’s 13-year-old daughter the day of the murder.

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El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said he could not yet identify the new suspect — who was arrested Tuesday in Roseville — because he was a juvenile at the time of the murder and prosecutors are in the process of transferring his case to adult court. But he said a Michael Green was arrested and that matched the name of a juvenile Autumn, Hylton’s young daughter, identified to police in 1985 as someone she met at a nearby park shortly before the slaying.

On Thursday morning, Pierson filed a motion to dismiss all charges against the 54-year-old Davis, who was only 20 at the time of the murder, and ask for a finding of factual innocence. The judge granted the request and hours later, Davis walked out of the El Dorado County jail smiling as he was quickly surrounded by friends and family.

He refused to comment to reporters, instead holding up a black sweatshirt embroidered with a yellow Innocence Project logo.

“I can tell you with all confidence, he did not commit this crime. He is not responsible for it,” Pierson said at a news conference Thursday morning. “I’m not telling you we can’t prove it, I’m telling you he didn’t do it.”

Melissa O’Connell, an attorney with the Innocence Project who championed Davis’ case, described the scene in court.

“Mr. Davis was very emotional and got to hug his mom for the first time in a long time today,” she said. “Nothing will be greater than to see him walk out a free man.”

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Davis contacted the Innocence Project a year after his conviction and the Santa Clara-based legal group immediately got suspicious of the police work when they viewed the confession and implication of Davis by his then-19-year-old girlfriend, Connie Dahl.

It was around 3 a.m. the night of the stabbing that Davis and Dahl returned home from a party and found Hylton’s 13-year-old daughter outside the house afraid to go inside because she had lied to her mother and she had secretly hung out with a group of boys she had just met at a nearby park. They all lived in the same El Dorado Hills home.

The trio discovered Hylton’s bloodied body inside and Davis called 911 immediately. Hylton, a society columnist for a local paper, had been stabbed 29 times and bitten once on her left shoulder. Investigators felt the body was moved and the crime scene had been staged.

At the time, Autumn told police that she had met three boys named Calvin, Michael and Steve in a nearby park. The investigation fizzled, but the cold case was reopened in 1999.

Detectives interrogated Dahl four times over the next 18 months “using techniques known to increase the chances of false confessions,” according to an Innocence Project synopsis of the case. “Dahl ultimately changed her story for police and implicated Davis as the killer.”

On Thursday, Pierson shared some of the leading questions by detectives, calling their tactics an “overly aggressive interrogation technique, confession-driven.” He said both detectives have since retired from law enforcement.

“So the train is coming through right now ... and in my experience ... the first one to jump on the bandwagon always gets the ... easiest ride,” one detective told Dahl.

The detectives also fed the bite detail to Dahl.

“Have you ever been the type of person that during a fight ... have you ever bit someone? Do you ever bite?” the detective asked.

“I’ve bitten a couple times,” Dahl responded. Later, she struggled with whether to falsely confess to biting the victim. “I don’t know if I bit her. I don’t know if ... I don’t believe that I have it in me to help do this.”

Her police interview was the crux of the case against Davis, and a jury convicted him in 2005. Dahl took an immunity deal and received a year in county jail. She died in 2014, according to a local newspaper.

In 2012, Pierson and the Innocence Project agreed to do more DNA testing with new advancements.

The bite mark was not swabbed in 1985, but investigators still had the blood-soaked nightgown, so a Sacramento County district attorney’s lab technician went inch by inch over the garment, searching for some type of DNA other than the victim’s own blood. In 2014, the lab found a mixture of blood and saliva and technological advances allowed for the separation of the profiles. That profile also matched DNA found underneath Hylton’s fingernails for a male suspect other than Davis.

After a judge reversed his conviction last April, Pierson had to decide whether to retry him. The prosecutor reached out to Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who a year earlier announced the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer, by pioneering genetic genealogy.

“Could we use this tool for the first time here in California to free a man?” she recalled Pierson asking her.

The next month, in May, a team took the genetic profile from the Hylton crime scene and uploaded it into a public DNA database used by people trying to find long lost relatives and they got a hit. Without getting into details, officials Thursday said they used family trees to narrow down whose DNA could have been on Hylton’s nightgown and underneath her nails.

The man arrested, Michael Green, matches the name of one of the three boys Hylton’s daughter provided to police more than three decades ago. Pierson said they also found the other two boys — Calvin was dead and Steve was interviewed Wednesday and determined to not be involved in the murder.

Pierson shared how he visited Davis on Tuesday in his jail cell and Davis told him: “Vern, I didn’t do it.”

“And I told him, ‘Ricky, I have to tell you with all sincerity — I believe you.’”

The El Dorado County district attorney said he expected Davis to apply for compensation for his prison time, but on Thursday his attorney O’Connell said he had only one thing on his mind.

“He wants to grab a pizza,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: matthias.gafni@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mgafni

Oklahoma court upholds woman's conviction in son's death .
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday upheld the murder and child neglect convictions of a woman for the death of her 8-month-old son and neglect of her 16-month-old daughter. The court rejected appeals by Ruth Ann Lewis, 25, of Tulsa, who was sentenced to life in prison for the child's death plus 13 years for neglect of both her son and daughter. The son, identified only as Z.M., died in May 2016 of what an autopsy report said was blunt force trauma to the head. Lewis' attorney did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

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