Christopher Dunn, a Missouri man sentenced life without parole, plus 90 years, for a murder he says he didn’t commit, has spent 30 years in prison only for the state of Missouri to deny him exoneration because he wasn’t sentenced to death, the New Republic reports. In recent years, prisoners like Dunn, convicted under questionable circumstances during the nation’s long incarceration boom, have become a controversial issue for left-leaning prosecutors, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and the recently recalled Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. In 2016, Kimberly Gardner, a progressive, was elected chief prosecutor in St. Louis and established the state’s first Conviction Integrity Unit, or CIU. CIUs are now a factor in a majority of exonerations. According to an April report by the National Registry of Exonerations, they “play[ed] essential roles” in 97 of 161 exonerations nationwide in 2021.
In February 2018, Dunn got word that he had been granted a hearing to determine whether he was wrongfully imprisoned, based in part on key prosecution witnesses' statements that they had wrongly implicated Dunn in the murder. In September 2020, more than two years after the hearing, Judge William Hickle released his judgment, writing that “new evidence has emerged, in addition to the recantations, which make it likely that reasonable, properly instructed jurors would find [Dunn] not guilty.” He continued, “This Court does not believe that any jury would now convict Christopher Dunn.” And yet, Missouri law prevented him from granting Dunn’s petition. Innocence alone, Hickle wrote, is grounds for relief only for a prisoner “sentenced to death, and is unavailable for cases in which the death penalty has not been imposed.” In other words: Dunn might have gone free, if only he’d been condemned to die. Hickle based his ruling on the 1993 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Herrera v. Collins that absent constitutional violations, new evidence of innocence does not entitle a prisoner to further judicial proceedings.