Columbia, Mo. (Nov. 8, 2005) — A 23-year-old murder case, inconsistent witness testimony and a three-year feud between the daughters of the victim and the convicted murderer – those were the facts presented to the first-ever criminal justice writing/reporting class at the Missouri School of Journalism in the spring of 2005.
Led by Steve Weinberg, a seasoned criminal justice reporter and professor of journalism, the 11 students spent months researching DNA testing, digging up court testimony and interviewing witnesses. They gathered background information, chronologies, photographs and more, all with the intent of reporting on the disputed St. Louis case, which had been controversially re-opened in 2003.
Their hard work finally paid off on Oct. 23, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran their story, “The aftermath of murder,” a full explanatory report detailing the crime and the controversy that has ensued for more than two decades.
While it may seem unusual for a metropolitan newspaper to print student-assisted work, it doesn’t surprise those at the Missouri School of Journalism or the cooperating editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I’ve been very impressed with the students’ seriousness of purpose,” said Richard Weiss, assistant metro editor and writing coach at the Post-Dispatch. “They are ambitious in the stories they choose. From all that I’ve seen they get excellent guidance.”
At Missouri, professors and professional editors challenge students to be real reporters who produce top-quality work. Reporting for the Columbia Missourian, a daily city newspaper and working lab for students, and Vox, Columbia’s only weekly arts and entertainment magazine, students gain the experience and resume clips that give them an advantage in the job market. Students can also gain a diversity of writing and reporting experience with specialized classes like Weinberg’s.
“The students in the class can now demonstrate their preparation for covering the criminal justice system as representatives of news organizations anywhere in the nation,” Weinberg said.
This was the second time this year that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has run a story reported by Missouri journalism students. In July, it published a story written by James Carlson, BJ ’05. His piece concerned the sister of a murder victim whose killer was spared the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis of his youth.
“His was a story that our staff probably could have done; but missed because we did not drill down as deep as this particular student did,” Weiss said.
The rigor of research and persistence required in Weinberg’s class was an asset, according to Erich Hayes, BJ ’05, and member of the class. Even though he had fewer opportunities to write because of the research, Hayes’s task of tracking an online diary written by the victim’s daughter was an important role.
“The project provided me with more research and investigative opportunities than any other journalism class that I’ve taken,” Hayes said.
Master’s student Ginger McFarland said she learned a lot about tenacity in her role of the project. She had to find and interview the jurors who served at the trial more than 20 years ago. She gained much more than investigative experience in Weinberg’s class.
“This kind of journalism can impact the people whose lives are touched by the case, the public and even the criminal justice system,” McFarland said. “It’s a responsibility. I genuinely felt like our class did something worthwhile. This was not like most other class assignments. It opened a new door for me.”
The aftermath of murder
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Oct. 23 2005
Reprinted by permission.
Two days on the calendar haunt Melissa Davis and Kay Lincoln.For Davis, it’s April 27 – what she calls “my most unfavorite day of the year” – the date that her mother, JoAnn Clenney Tate, was murdered.
For Lincoln, it’s May 22, the day that her father was arrested for killing Davis’ mother.
It has been 23 years since the murder. Davis was 7 years old then; Lincoln, 13. The passage of time has done little to heal their wounds. Rather, it has put the two women on a collision course.
That’s because Kay Lincoln believes that her father, Rodney Lincoln, is innocent. She says this can be proven with DNA testing, which was not available in 1982.
Davis believes just as fiercely that Rodney Lincoln is guilty. No tests are necessary, Davis says, because she saw Lincoln murder her mother before attacking her and her sister.
Sometime after midnight and before dawn on an April morning in 1982, a man entered Tate’s apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood north of downtown. Police found no sign of forced entry, suggesting that Tate, 35, knew her attacker. The man stabbed Tate repeatedly with a knife from her kitchen and then sexually assaulted her with a broomstick, leaving her to die.
Then he assaulted Tate’s children who still lived at home: Melissa and her half-sister Renee, 4. He cut Renee’s throat. When she arrived at Cardinal Glennon Hospital, Renee was comatose and near death. Melissa suffered a collapsed lung and a slit running from her buttocks to the top of her vagina.
It seemed at first that police would find the killer quickly. The apartment in the 1400 block of Farrar Street was filled with forensic evidence: blood, hair, fingerprints, the murder weapon. Police also got accounts of the attacks from Melissa and Renee.
Tate’s relatives suggested suspects, including former husbands and 23 boyfriends, some of them with histories of violence against Tate. Police found a hatchet stashed under Tate’s mattress, suggesting that she feared somebody specific, or at least worried about her safety.
At no point in those early discussions between Tate’s relatives and police did Rodney Lincoln’s name arise, even though family members knew Lincoln and Tate had dated the previous year, and even though Lincoln had an extensive criminal record.
Nearly a month later, police investigators felt stymied. They were looking for a suspect named Bill. Melissa told police that her mother had cried out that name.
The name seemed plausible to police and prosecutors; several men named Bill had come and gone from Tate’s life. But detectives could place none of them at the murder scene with any certainty.
When Tate’s adult daughter from her first marriage asked Melissa if a former boyfriend named Gary might have been the assailant, Melissa answered yes, even though the names Gary and Bill are dissimilar.
Rodney Lincoln showed up on the radar unexpectedly. A St. Louis police artist heard that Melissa had mentioned physical similarities between the attacker named Bill and a family friend named Dennis. He obtained a photograph of Dennis and asked Melissa to point out similarities and differences between the photograph and her attacker. Melissa said the composite drawing looked a lot like Bill the attacker.
Two of Tate’s siblings visited homicide detectives the next day. The siblings said that the composite looked like a man that Tate used to date, named Rod.
Searching through Tate’s address books, police found an entry for Rod. They called the number, learning that Rodney Lincoln shared it with his mother. Then police obtained a photograph of Lincoln and showed it to Melissa and Renee. Melissa said the photograph looked like the bad man who entered her home on April 27.
The arrest surprised Lincoln’s relatives, employer and girlfriend. JoAnn Tate seemed to have been in his life only briefly, the year before. Lincoln had seemingly put his criminal past behind him, holding down a job as a truck driver, paying attention to his children. He was engaged to be married.
Detectives arrested Lincoln as he grilled meat on a backyard barbecue. The arrest was made in front of 13-year-old Kay, one of Lincoln’s four children.
St. Louis detectives and prosecutors worked hard to develop the murder and assault case against Lincoln. But the unambiguous evidence they hoped to find eluded them. No forensic evidence proved that Lincoln had entered Tate’s residence on April 27, 1982, or any other time.
As a result, when the trial opened in August 1983, the case depended largely upon the testimony of Melissa Davis. The judge decided that she was competent to testify.
But could a traumatized child, who over time had provided a variety of accounts of the horrible attack, persuade a jury that she had identified the assailant beyond a reasonable doubt?
The discrepancies in Melissa’s account became apparent quickly. Melinda Parris, Melissa’s teenage half-sister, and Wayne Munkel, a hospital social worker, heard the initial account while doctors were treating the 7-year-old’s injuries.
During that first telling, Melissa said the attacker had visited the home in a friendly manner the night before the murder. When he returned the next night, Melissa said, her mother’s screams woke her.
Melissa said she had seen the attacker put down his coat before beginning to stab Tate. She said she had watched her mother try to flee. She heard her mother scream the attacker’s name, Bill.
In Melissa’s May 1983 deposition, she said that she did not recall her mother’s screaming the name Bill. (By then, police had arrested and the prosecutor had charged a suspect named Rodney.) Instead, Melissa said, she had invented the name Bill because of intense questioning and her own confusion.
Melissa held to that version during the trial. Also in the trial, Melissa said she could not recall saying that Bill had visited the family home the night before the murder. She said that she did not recall watching the attacker remove his coat. She did not recall actually seeing the stabbing or watching her mother struggle.
In Rodney Lincoln’s first trial, Melissa’s testimony could not overcome reasonable doubt in the minds of at least five jurors, according to court records and interviews with some of the surviving jurors earlier this year.
Two months later, at his retrial, a different jury convicted Lincoln. Now 60 years old, Lincoln has been in prison ever since, asserting his innocence. His appeal to a higher court failed.
A new beginning
For 20 years, nothing of legal significance happened in the Rodney Lincoln case.
Then, in 2003, Melissa Davis and Kay Lincoln received a surprise. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced that her prosecutors would review old cases in which new DNA technology might provide unambiguous results – of guilt or innocence.
Rodney Lincoln’s case was on the list.
Melissa Davis felt fear. Kay Lincoln felt hope.
Hearing about Kay Lincoln’s involvement in the case, 21 years after the murder, Melissa Davis began to take Kay Lincoln’s effort to win freedom for her father personally.
“Kay Lincoln is about my age,” Davis wrote in an e-mail. “Her life’s purpose is to exonerate Rodney Lincoln. While I can identify with her need to see her father as innocent, she was not there that night. She only believes what he tells her. He is a pathological liar and a true psychopath.”
Reading some of Davis’ Web postings at www.diaryland.com, Kay Lincoln commented: “Most of what she has on there are lies or things she has been told for so many years that she believes they are the truth.”
Melissa Davis’ life has been difficult. Born Oct. 12, 1974, Davis says she is not entirely certain of her father’s identity because her mother was involved with two men at the time she became pregnant.
Davis says that about a month after her birth, her mother and her youngest brother, Nathaniel, were seriously injured when a tractor-trailer struck their car. For the remainder of her life, Tate suffered chronic pain.
Largely disabled, Tate sold Avon cosmetic products, supplementing that meager income with government welfare, church charity and help from relatives. She battled obesity.
Despite the less-than-desirable neighborhood she grew up in, the sporadic earnings, the shortage of food in the house toward the end of the month, Davis recalls her mother positively: “Her warmth was my sun,” she said. “I lived for it. It sustained me.”
If April 27, 1982, had unfolded as expected, Melissa would have arisen shortly after sunrise to prepare for her first-grade classes at Clay Elementary School.
But the assault changed everything. Afterward, Melissa and Renee basically lived at Cardinal Glennon Hospital for six months. They spent that time primarily with physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists – plus homicide detectives and prosecutors, at first hoping to identify a suspect, later hoping to strengthen the case against Lincoln.
Released from the hospital in October 1982, the girls moved to Festus to live with their mother’s sister and her husband.
Homicide detective Joseph Burgoon took charge of preparing Melissa for trial. Melissa and Renee adored him. Burgoon knew that after the murder, Melissa and Renee had been shown picture after picture of men named Bill. He knew their hospital room had been full of upset relatives, also trying to determine the identity of the assailant.
He visited every day, often bringing bags of M&M candy. After police and prosecutors settled on Lincoln as the killer, Burgoon never allowed doubts about eyewitness identification to enter his mind. They were there, we weren’t, he says of Melissa and Renee.
Burgoon explained to Melissa that she would have to answer questions from a judge about whether she was competent to testify because of her age and the changing accounts. Then she would have to answer questions from the prosecutor and defense attorney.
The judge ruled that Melissa could testify. The first trial, in August 1983, ended in a hung jury.
Prosecutors decided to try Lincoln again. This time, the jury found Lincoln guilty. On Nov. 4, 1983, Judge Jack L. Koehr sentenced him to life plus 15 years.
After the trial
Life continued to be difficult for Melissa. Schoolmates could see the scars all over her body. Some of them knew she had to wear a colostomy bag under her clothes. She had nightmares. After her aunt died in 1987, Melissa spent the next few years living with relatives and family friends.
She managed to graduate from McCluer North High School in 1993 and later joined the Navy. Stationed in San Diego, she married a fellow enlistee. Believing that she could not give birth because of the injuries from 1982, Davis joyfully found herself pregnant.
Daughter Jacquelyn was born March 3, 1997. But then the marriage fell apart, and Davis left the Navy. (She kept her married name but asked that it not be used in this story.)
Returning to St. Louis with her daughter, Davis found a retail job, then shifted to a position with a U.S. Defense Department contractor. She started writing and posting blogs, as well as conducting other activities on behalf of crime victims’ rights.
Her sister, Renee, who was too young to testify at Rodney Lincoln’s trials and could not describe her attacker, now lives in a small town in Tennessee. In a telephone interview she said she was supportive of her sister’s efforts and fearful if Lincoln was freed. “What if he comes back to finish what he started, and kill me?” she asked.
Kay Lincoln was born in November 1968. Her dad had married his high school girlfriend, Cathie Fitzpatrick, and they had settled near Carondelet Park in south St. Louis. They had four children.
Cathie recalls Lincoln as a loving father but a less than ideal husband, given his drinking, shooting pool and cavorting with other women. She was a devout Catholic and hoped to avoid divorce, but her life started moving in an unfortunate direction in 1972, when Lincoln killed a man during a fight in Jefferson Barracks Park.
According to police and court records, the altercation began in a bar and moved outside. Because of extenuating circumstances, Lincoln received a sentence of 10 years for second-degree murder. He left prison in December 1975, after serving two years.
Kay Lincoln, in a series of interviews, recalled her father’s visiting her elementary school the day of his release from prison so he could check on her progress in the first grade.
By then, Kay Lincoln’s mother had divorced Lincoln and remarried.
Deprived of her father’s companionship because of the prison term for the killing at the bar and a later prison term for burglary, Kay Lincoln refused to abandon hope for a relationship with her biological father, which may explain why she was spending time with him the day police arrested Rodney Lincoln for the murder of JoAnn Tate.
Lincoln’s girlfriend said she spent the night with Lincoln at his mother’s house and was there with him during the hours of the attack at Tate’s home. She recalls Lincoln’s driving her home after daylight, on the way to his job. Police and prosecutors discounted her account of that night, and it apparently also failed to sway the jury.
Kay Lincoln felt crushed by the verdict against her father. She dropped out of high school in her freshman year and soon gave birth to the first of four children.
In 1987, she took the infant on a prison visit so her dad could feel good about becoming a grandfather. Kay Lincoln believed her father’s statements of innocence. But consumed, by motherhood and the need to hold a steady job, she found little time to campaign on Lincoln’s behalf.
Revisiting the case
In recent years, however, Kay had noticed the stream of reports about wrongful convictions, some of them in St. Louis city and county.
Then on June 13, 2003, KSDK-TV reported that Rodney Lincoln’s case was being reviewed as part of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Justice Project, which was using DNA technology to re-examine old crimes.
Melissa Davis could not hold the bitterness and grief inside. Before then, she had begun an Internet blog at www.diaryland.com, using xnavygrrl as her identifier. She discussed her daily life, her mothering, her attempts to survive as the daughter of a murdered mother. After the report, Davis began filling the blog with references to the evilness of Rodney Lincoln.
On June 25, 2003, Melissa Davis mailed a letter to Lincoln’s prison address. The outside of the envelope refers to Lincoln as Grim Reaper, Hitler’s Spawn, Rapist, Sodomizer, Baby Killer, Child Rapist, Coward, Subhuman. The five-page, handwritten letter gloats that Lincoln would never see freedom and suggests he cleanse his soul by confessing guilt.
Just as Davis felt anger when the prosecutor placed Lincoln’s conviction on its review list in 2003, Kay Lincoln was outraged when she learned, in April 2004, that the prosecutor was backing off. The circuit attorney’s office said it could find nothing that would exonerate Lincoln.
That sent Kay Lincoln in search of help. In researching the case, she had noted inconsistencies in Melissa’s statements, at age 7, before the trials; at age 8, during the trials; and after the trials. Hearing about the Midwestern Innocence Project in Kansas City, Kay Lincoln summarized her thinking for lawyer Phil Gibson, hoping that he would select her father’s cause from the pile of pleas. Persuaded that the evidence suggested the plausibility of an innocent man in prison, Gibson agreed to represent Lincoln pro bono, on behalf of the project.
On March 3, 2005, Gibson asked the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office to produce forensic evidence from the 1982 crime scene, specifically a pubic hair, some blood samples and scrapings taken from under Tate’s fingernails. The forensic evidence could not be tested using DNA analysis during the investigation because the technology did not exist.
The fingernail scrapings could show the identity of the assailant if they contain his skin. But Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and deputy Ed Postawko say those scrapings cannot be found. The pubic hair and blood samples are available and perhaps testable.
Prosecution witnesses suggested that the hair and at least some of the blood might have been Lincoln’s. That testimony, however, was based on a combination of rudimentary science and wishful thinking.
If today’s higher-tech testing shows that the pubic hair and blood match Lincoln’s without a doubt, then evidence of his guilt, while not definitive, would presumably look more reliable. If the pubic hair and blood fail to match Lincoln’s, evidence of his innocence would not be definitive, either. But the case would presumably look weaker.
And if the pubic hair and blood could be matched to samples from other suspects considered before Lincoln’s arrest, the match might suggest a different assailant.
“If the hair is not Rod’s, I believe no reasonable juror could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gibson said. All that would be left would be the eyewitness testimony of a severely injured, traumatized 7-year-old girl – the basis, perhaps, for a new trial.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Calvin has issued an order asking the prosecutor’s office to produce the forensic evidence available or to explain why it cannot.
Postawko’s response is expected to be filed Monday. In an interview earlier this year, Postawko said that prosecutors, staff and volunteers spent hundreds of hours, over a period of months, reviewing the Lincoln case.
Based on that review, Joyce said, “In our view, there’s nothing further to be done.”
“We’ve never doubted Melissa’s testimony,” Joyce said, adding that “there is no doubt in my mind” about Lincoln’s guilt.
Melissa Davis clings tightly to her belief that Rodney Lincoln murdered her mother. She maintains that arguments that his daughter has brought forth are trivial compared with what she witnessed.
“Yes, I was traumatized,” Melissa Davis said. “Yes, I had the wrong name for the guy. I mean, if someone tried to kill you and chopped you up and killed your mom, you would think that people would understand if you gave them the wrong name. But the description matched. I knew where he lived. I knew who he was.
“That never changed. The fact that I hadn’t seen the guy in months and suddenly he comes into my house and murders my mom and tries to kill me and my sister is something she (Kay Lincoln) can never change. No matter what little points she wants to bring up.”
How this story was reported: The research for this story began on Nov. 15, 2004, when Kay Lincoln, daughter of convicted murderer Rodney Lincoln, contacted journalist Steve Weinberg in Columbia, Mo., where he teaches part time at the University of Missouri Journalism School and does freelance investigative reporting. Experienced at examining claims of wrongful convictions, Weinberg began looking into Kay Lincoln’s claims that her father was innocent of the killing of JoAnn Clenney Tate and the assault on two of her daughters. He included 11 of his students from his criminal justice reporting class in the research and writing. The students are: Erin Eggers, Erich Hayes, Elaine Kelly, Sarah Korsch, Katrina Lundquist, Ginger McFarland, Anupama Narayanswamy, Katie Owens, Elle Reeve, Leah Shover and Amber Taufen. Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch also contributed information to this story.
Updated: April 8, 2020