Hi, it's me, Jason Flom, and I have a quick update for you. We are shuffling the decks a little bit and now wrongful conviction with Jason Pflaum is going to be released on Mondays. And wrongful conviction junk science is moving to Wednesdays. Stay tuned because there will be more exciting developments coming up soon from a lot of for good podcasts. It's a clear fall day in America's heartland. You sit in a chair outside your trailer contently looking out over your farm, it's cool.
And the sun is setting behind the dense forest that surrounds your property.
Everything seems just right. That evening, your stepdaughter, Annette, stops by with her boyfriend. You and your wife were pretty upset when Annette told you she was moving away from the farm and moving in with her boyfriend, Todd, and his parents downtown, you don't want Annette to be caught up with someone from town. All those townies seem to care about his church and gossip. You want nothing to do with them and they don't seem to want anything to do with you.
But Annetts, already 18, she's an adult, you can't really control her, you try to act supportive, so you nod to Todd and help Annette pack the last of her things into his trunk. You give her a hug before she gets into the car with him and you watch as Todd pulls away to drive them back into town and you're feeling a little helpless. The next day is pretty routine for you. You pick up loads of hay to bring to your barn, it's strenuous work.
You work hard all day, you're exhausted and you go to bed early. The next morning, the phone rings, it's Todd's mother, she says are anend, Todd, with you. No, you say, I thought they were with you, Tad's mother becomes frantic, she says the kids went for a walk around 4:00 p.m. yesterday and they never came home last night. But there's something else going on there. There's a hint of something, a tone of accusation in her voice, like she's somehow blaming you.
You hang up and call the police immediately. You wait all day hoping to hear something, but there's nothing. You're just waiting and waiting and the police finally get back to you in the evening. They can't find them. One sleepless night leads into another and then another and another.
This is one terrible nightmare for you and your wife. Ten days go on like this, all you and your wife can do is sit and worry. You're not eating, you're not sleeping, you don't know what to do with yourselves. It's raining outside. When you finally get a call from an officer and you can hear it in the tone of their voice, this is not going to be good. The news I have for you is not going to be easy to hear.
He says, we found Todd in the net in the Hawking River. Oh, my God, you you can't stand. Your body is trembling. You try to restate what the officer just said. You're trying to wrap your head around what this means. You found their bodies, their dead bodies. The officer says. They didn't find their whole bodies, just their torsos, their bodies have been dismembered. You're completely sick. Officers spend two days searching the cornfields between the railroad tracks and the river where the torsos were found.
They find Todd and Annetts limbs and heads buried in shallow graves. You and your wife drive into town to the police station and you're taken aback by the attitudes of these cops when you're separated from your wife and pulled into an interrogation room. Officers tell you to take off your boots, your shirt, your pants, you sit shivering in your underwear for eight and a half hours, and then a detective comes in, he sits down right next to you, puts his finger in your face and says, you did this.
We know you did this. We found your blueprint down by the riverbank. Once we match that boot to the print that was left at that riverbank, it'll prove you were there. You killed your stepdaughter and then, you sick bastard, you cut off her arms, her legs, her head. You better confess, because I'll tell you right now, it's going to get worse for you if you don't. You say over and over and over again, what in the world are you talking about?
I didn't murder yet.
I just came here to help you find out who did. What is this all about?
They don't have enough evidence to charge you for the murder of Annette and Todd, so they have to let you go. They impound your car so it can be searched for evidence, it's dark and cold when they drive you home, they let you and your wife out of the car and you're still naked except for your underwear. You walk barefoot to your trailer, your toes are totally numb by the time you get to the door.
Downtown, rumors start to spread. People are saying this murder must have been some kind of cult ritual, that it must have been you who did it, the quiet, stern stepfather who never says much, never goes to church, keeps his family hidden away. Who knows what goes on at that farm.
They didn't like you before, but now they're straight up hostile. They cross the street to get away from you when they see you coming. It takes them a year to build the case against you, are they even looking at other suspects?
The whispering of your name around town grows to a fever pitch. You can hear their accusations ring in your ears. Murderer, molester. You're eventually arrested and charged with the butchering murder of your stepdaughter, Annette, and her boyfriend, Todd. When you finally go to court, you do something very out of the ordinary, you waive the right to a jury trial, finding 12 impartial people and Logan, Ohio, really not going to happen.
The newspapers, everyone around town, they all think you're guilty. Everyone just wants to feel safe again. They won't be satisfied until someone is convicted and they are sure that person is you. Instead of a jury, you put your fate in the hands of a three judge panel. A jury might not see it, but three judges, they they have to it's their job to apply the facts to the law without any outside influence from the court of public opinion.
Your lawyer calls to the stand an FBI analyst who says the plaster mold of what the prosecution claims is your bootprint at the riverbank is, quote unquote, unsuitable. The analyst says it lacks sufficient detail for meaningful comparison and that it looks more like the footprint of someone who was walking barefoot. There is no way to claim your boots match that print. So you're optimistic. But then the prosecution calls an anthropology professor to the stand. She says she studied footwear impressions of countless samples.
Her delivery is slow and deliberate and really credible. She says, quote, No person's footprints are the same as another. They're as unique as a fingerprint. I've analyzed the weather patterns on the inside of the defendant's boot. And I can say with certainty, scientific certainty that the footprint found by the riverbank was made by the defendant. This sounds unbelievable, but you see the judges are nodding along, there's no way they're buying this is they're after a very short deliberation.
The judges apparently believe the testimony of the prosecution's anthropologist who put you right at the scene of the crime. They convict you and you are sentenced to death. The story you just heard is based on the murders of Annette Cooper Johnston and Todd Shultz, Dale Johnston was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1984. He was exonerated in 1990. Over 20 years after the murder, the true killer finally confessed, but even then, the people in the town of Logan still chose to believe that Dale was guilty in one way or another.
On today's episode, we're going to examine how a supposed footprint put an innocent man on death row. I'm Josh Dubin, civil rights and criminal defense attorney and Innocent's ambassador to the Innocence Project in New York today on wrongful conviction junk science, we examine footwear comparison, evidence even when done correctly. Impression analysis of evidence like shoe prints and tire tracks is purely subjective. Many experts recognize its limitations, but one so-called expert in particular pushed the limits of this forensic discipline to produce horrific outcomes.
It turns out the Dale Johnson wasn't the only innocent person to be convicted of a crime based on faulty footwear comparison evidence. You know, we create these podcasts with the aim to educate as well as to inspire action. Now, we'd love to hear from you. We'd love for other listeners to hear what you've been inspired by when listening to these incredible human stories and what you've been inspired to do. Have you written a letter, talk to a friend or parent about it?
Have you donated money or dedicated some of your time? What's your story? Come leave all of us a note in the review section of Apple podcast. Tell us how you've been moved. And and remember, and I truly mean this. No action, no story is too small to share. What's yours. In 1976, archaeologists made one of the most exciting discoveries of our time, they found footprints dating back three point seven million years immortalized in the volcanic ash in Tanzania, and they looked like human brains.
Archaeologists were thrilled.
They thought these footprints could shed some light on when human beings began walking upright on two feet. Lewis Robins was an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
She, too, was excited about these footprints and wanted to know exactly who left them behind. Louise had been conducting her own studies and footprint analysis. She started collecting footprints from people who were still alive, 500 people put ink onto their feet and then stood on a piece of paper based on those prints. Louise tried to find characteristics and feet that were specific to age, sex, stature and weight using her own system of measurement.
She would then compare those characteristics to the footprints found in the caves. Her conclusion? No. Two footprints are the same. In fact, she thought she could tell a great deal about a person just by looking at their footprint. Her methods were never tested by her peers, nor were they confirmed by other scientists. But Louise, she thought she was on to something. She claimed to do something no one else could identify a person solely through their footprint.
And so in 1978, when a team of scientists went to excavate the site in Tanzania, where the prehistoric footprints were found, Lewis went to when she saw the prints, she claimed that one of them was left by a woman that was five and a half months pregnant. Now, other scientists on the expedition scratch their heads. It was hard enough to figure out if the prints that they were looking at were even human at all. No one had ever claimed to know the gender of the person that made the print, let alone of that person was carrying a child.
Then Louise took a dangerous leap.
She positioned herself as a forensic expert, authoring a book on footprints.
She didn't write this book with her scientific peers in mind, but she wrote it for law enforcement and crime labs. Only five pages in this book were dedicated to the analysis of actual shoe prints. And yet, based on these five pages, Louise claimed that she was an expert in this area of forensic science.
Lawyers began to hire her as an expert witness. They told judges that her work was on the cutting edge of forensic science. Critics of her work called it Cinderella analysis. After all, she usually made sure that the shoe fit when she matched the suspect's foot to the shoe prints found at a crime scene. In the more than 20 cases for which she testified, 12 people, some of whom who have since been proven to be innocent, were sent to prison, including Dale Johnston, who was sentenced to death.
Dale Johnson and his wife Sarah at the time came down to Logan several days after the bodies had been discovered and they they came to the Logan Police Department, they wanted to be helpful to them. And Dale was immediately taken up to an interrogation room. His boots, his pants, his shirt were all confiscated.
So he was sitting there in the chair in his underwear and they were bombarding him. You did it, didn't you? And we know you did it over and over and over again. He kept saying, no, I have not. I just came I came into town to try to help here. Today is below Sanski, a journalist who covered the Dale Johnson case for years and wrote a book about it called Guilty by Popular Demand. So, Bill, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started covering this case.
For nearly 40 years, I was a reporter, I worked for 11 different newspapers around the country, I worked for the Akron Beacon Journal at that time, which is nearly 200 miles away from Logan, Ohio, where the murders took place. But in those days, some newspapers valued a major story and would make that kind of investment in time and resources to cover a widely publicized case like that.
So, Bill, you actually went to Logan, Ohio, to cover Dale's trial. What was that like? I drove into Logan, which is about 35 miles south east of Columbus, Ohio, never been there before, and I drove in on a January morning and it was one of the coldest days I can remember. Temperatures were well below zero. And I went to the center of the little town and found the courthouse. And here, you know, eight o'clock on a weekday morning, there was a line outside the courthouse.
People were standing in that below zero cold waiting for a chance to get in to hear all this salacious details of this horrific murder of a teenage couple who were found dismembered, parts of their bodies buried in a cornfield near the Hocking River in Logan, Ohio. Wow.
This is a really brutal crime. I mean, your body parts buried in fields. And the prosecutors claim that Dale Johnston committed these murders and putting aside what his motive would have been. How do they claim he committed the murders?
The prosecutor alleged in this scenario that Dale Johnston had kidnapped these two kids in downtown Logan, made a stop on his way home at a doctor's office and drove out to his trailer, where they got into an argument about a little used car that the parents were supposed to have given a nap, but hadn't yet. And out of that argument, Dale went into a jealous fit and pulled out a gun, which they never found, and shot his stepdaughter in the boyfriend and then took them outside, apparently, and butchered them.
And then brought them back to downtown Logan, where they had last been seen and put some body parts, heads and limbs in the cornfield. I mean, it just it it made absolutely no sense. They had no evidence that that he was actually back in town that night trying to bury these bodies. That's what the deal was. Not a warm guy. I mean, he you know, he was the outsider. He didn't have a high opinion of the locals.
They didn't like him.
You know, he was convenient guy for them to hang it on. So, Bill, did anyone think that Dale was innocent? I mean, what was your sense of of the, you know, atmosphere surrounding the case?
There was such an atmosphere of the case, having been already tried in the court of public opinion before the trial even started, more than a year passed between the murders and the trial. And obviously the only story coming out of the investigation was that Dale Johnson did it. So that, in fact, was why the defense waived a jury trial and asked for a three judge panel because they knew that the people in Hocking County were so predisposed to believe that Dale Johnson was the killer.
The Pacers Foundation is a proud supporter of this episode and of the Last Mile organization, which provides business and tech training to help incarcerated individuals successfully and permanently re-enter the workforce. The Pacers Foundation is committed to improving the lives of Hoosiers across Indiana, supporting organizations dedicated primarily to helping young people and students. For more information on the work of the Pacers Foundation or The Last Mile program, visit Pacers Foundation dog for the last mile, dawg. Now, very little evidence was found at the scenes where these body parts were found, but we know investigators found some sort of print in the mud by the riverbank.
And Dale goes down to the police station with his wife, Sarah, and he thinks he's going there to help them find the killers. But they confiscated his boots. And, of course, those boots would be compared to the impression found at the scene. So tell us a little bit more about what happened.
There was so many cops out there that according to the testimony of a Ohio Bureau of Investigation agent, they totally ruined the crime scene as far as being able to collect any valid evidence that there were cops tromping all over. Well, what happened was the sheriff of Hocking County had the impression made of a depression in the riverbank and they made a casting and they send it off to the FBI. And it was examined by a nationally known footprint expert at the FBI.
And he was brought in to testify to his findings. And he testified that, well, all he could say that this casting was more likely a footprint than any kind of a scoop or bootprint. And however, he forwarded this plaster casts at his own volition to a woman, anthropologist Louise Robbins, for her examination. And she had a theory of how he could identify footprints from the weather patterns on the inside of someone's footwear. She had this cockamamie theory that by examining the interior of a footwear, she could get where impressions and use that to analyze a casting of a print from a shoe or a boot.
And so she she testified in trial that, well, you can't really say that Dale Dunce's boot fits this, but from the weather patterns that she observed from the interior of the boot, when you looked at it that way, then yes, this was made by Dale Johnson's boot. And, you know, I had never heard of that before. Didn't make any sense to me. It was only later after the damage was done, that it came out how irresponsible and unreliable and untrue her testimony was.
So let me get this straight.
This is like, you know, kind of mind blowing here. Louise Robbins said that she could match the depression found by the river bank to Dale based on where patterns made by his foot inside his boot. I mean, it just sounds ridiculous. I've never even heard of that before. This seems to go so far outside the bounds of any verifiable science. And, you know, it's important for our listeners to keep in mind that with impression pattern matching methods, that's that's the type of science we're talking about or alleged science that we're talking about with shoe prints and tires.
There's a database that experts have and they refer to this database when they're matching a shoe or a tire to an impression at a scene.
And tires and shoes are mass produced. So the same rubber mold is used to make them. But that just tells an expert what class that piece of evidence came from. So, for instance, they can say that this footwear impression was made by a size 10 Nike Air Jordan. But the problem is a lot of people own a size 10 Nike, Air Jordan. So it's not enough to put somebody at the scene. So impression analysis really comes down to the individual characteristics in the specific shoe or shoes that belong to the accused.
And we're talking about things like cracks in the sole of the shoe gum stuck to the bottom of the heel, you know, characteristics that are often caused by routine wear and tear. But the problem is there is no standard regarding the number of unique characteristics that are needed to make a positive identification. And it sounds like from the mold they were working with in this case, that the FBI analyst couldn't even tell if the impression was made by a barefoot or a shoe, let alone what kind of a shoe.
So that should tell you something about the quality of the impression they were working with. But Miss Robbins makes this huge leap, and it's really, really hard to imagine that this could have been allowed in a courtroom when someone's freedom was on the line.
And yet he or she is one of the prosecution's key witnesses when it came to analyzing the physical evidence at the scene. So how prominently did Miss Robbins testimony play in the prosecution's closing arguments, Bill?
Well, it was very prominent because it was the only piece of evidence that link Dale Johnson to the murder scene. I thought it was a very weak link to begin with, but apparently it was strong enough for three judges. His closing line was murder is the ultimate form of molestation. So you must be guilty of the murder, too. He had, of course, been alleging without evidence that Dale Johnson had inappropriate relationship with.
So after he's convicted and sentenced, what happens next?
Bill? It was sent immediately to death row. But, you know, it was such a weird, hostile atmosphere in that town. I mean, I will never forget when it came time for the verdict. All the spectators had gathered on the lower level of the courthouse. But listen to the verdict by radio. And I will never forget that when the guilty verdict was announced, there was this eerie cheering that came from below, you know, that filled up the courtroom.
And these people wanted somebody to pay. And Dale Dunstan happened to be the guy who they were able to hang it on.
I mean, it seems, Bill, that they didn't even have anything other than a hunch that Dale Johnston did this. I mean, I it's hard to make sense of this. I mean, do you think that they did this on purpose? Do you think that they set out to frame Dale Johnson?
Well, I don't think anyone wants to accept that the prosecutors and police would knowingly fabricate an entire case against a murder defendant, and I know I came down to Logan with no preconceptions. I do remember, you know, having the belief that the state wouldn't bring these charges unless they had something against this guy. And by the end, I said, where is the case? I was shocked at the prosecutor's summary. I mean, it was it was total high opera and total total fantasy.
Everything that was presented in that trial was a lie. I believe somewhere before I die, I'm going to learn the truth of this case. And it just so happens that I did.
You know, it's interesting that oftentimes when one of these disciplines of junk science is used in a case and the person is convicted, it's not the exposure of that junk science as being total bullshit that leads to the exoneration.
It's often that DNA testing is used to prove that they have the wrong person.
What's really interesting about this case is that Dale is eventually released from prison because his lawyers were able to prove that some of the evidence that was used to convict him was not admissible.
And oddly enough, it wasn't the shoe evidence that was thrown out, but another witness's testimony.
It turns out that a witness had been hypnotized by a detective and was persuaded to give this awful testimony against Dale of the trial and, you know, testimony that he lied forcefully, put Annette and and Todd into a car.
And that testimony was never supposed to be admitted in court. And that was what was deemed inadmissible.
And Dale was let out because of that.
And, of course, Louise Robbins testimony about his, you know, the inside where patterns on his boots, you know, being definitive proof that the impression left on the riverbank was his that was left undisturbed and everyone still believed he was guilty.
But then someone else confessed to murdering Annette and Todd. So, Bill, tell us about that. Who actually committed this crime? A sorry little fellow named Chester McKnight was the nickname Chester the Molester because apparently because he was weird and was a habitual criminal, habitual drunk, even though he had a history of assaults against women. And Chester actually got married. And it lasted a couple of weeks before she kicked him out and left. And it was in that atmosphere where Chester just went over the deep end and was drinking day in and day out.
He was obviously depressed. The wife had left him and he was just drinking incessantly. He came on that afternoon, early evening of October 4th to Kenny Lynn Scott's house, a local drug dealer. You know, they were drinking buddies anyway. There was a kind of a makeshift party in his yard and Chester joined in. And here comes Todd and Annette. They join the party for a little while. I think they may have had a beer and Chester decided to hey, let's keep the party going.
I've got some I've got stuff. And so they they start walking down the railroad tracks. And according to Tester's account, he wanted to have group sex with Annette. And she, of course, the no. And and Todd tried to get her out of the situation. And that's when Chester pulled a gun and shot him and had started screaming and she shot her. At that point, Chester and Kenny dragged the bodies down to the riverfront at the edge of the cornfield and dismembered them.
And Kenny, maybe with help, maybe not got the bodies back into the cornfield and dug shallow holes and put the limbs and the heads into a kind of a bear spot in the middle of a cornfield that he knew about. And Kenny, the next few nights he would go out to that railroad bridge and cry and moan and friends saying, What's wrong, Kenny? And he told them, you know, you wouldn't understand. His neighbors knew what he was doing.
His neighbors saw his behavior. His neighbors told the police that they should be investigating him, but they they never did. And they didn't have a record then of this strange call made the night before the body parts were found. Kenny Linscott made the call and said, have you found the bodies yet? And nobody at that point knew that the kids were even dead or that there were bodies to be found. And that car was logged and it became the thing that that led to Kenny and ultimately to Chester.
And so I have a law enforcement source that helped me with this. And he told me that, you know, everybody knew Kenny was acting weird after the killings. And he said, well, let's go talk to Kenny. And the sheriff says, oh, no, we we can find him when we need him. So at the very beginning, Lynn Scott's name came up, but yet the police just dismissed him right out of hand.
In reflecting on all this, I just want to go back to Lee's Robyn's testimony about the shoe print for a moment. I understand why jurors would be persuaded by her. She's got this anthropology degree. She's a professor. She comes across, I'm sure, convincingly. She went and studied these ancient footprints in Tanzania. That all makes sense. But the three judges hearing this, you know, the inside where patterns on the boot and that being definitive proof that it was Dale Johnson's bootprint.
I mean, what what did they make of her testimony? I can tell you how strongly her testimony was accepted twenty five years later when the real truth came out. I interviewed two of the three judges on the case and they both said, well, we had Dr. Robbins testimony before us, and that was very convincing. This was even after they learned the truth, after they learned everything this woman said was was a lie. They still wanted to wanted to believe in her.
I have summed up this case as a total collapse of a local justice system, and I and I still believe that it left me with such a sense of outrage that this kind of thing can be done in our system of justice. And I mean, you know, it was it was not even close, but the lies that were told in that courtroom were enough to send an innocent man to death row. Sitting there and through the entire trial, they never they never presented a rational case in the evidence that they did present was, you know, challenged very successfully by the defense.
I mean, what I learned is that someone with an academic position and and the claim of scientific expertise is automatically granted some level of believability, even by judges and and prosecutors and investigators. And they really accepted Louise Robbins testimony as fact. I called it in my book, Fantasy Forensics. And as events have proven, it was totally fabricated. I can only attribute it to the desire to get a conviction, any conviction that people in that town were petrified.
The judges knew it. They knew what would happen if they didn't get a conviction and they knew that they wouldn't have another crack at Dale Johnson if they acquitted him. So they convicted him and and just, you know, went back home. The use of Dr. Robbins as a forensic expert is an example of what can go horribly wrong when courts allow unverified science into our courtrooms, she testified in 20 cases, truly a hired gun by attorneys looking for a particular outcome.
Her work was reviewed by a panel of 135 anthropologists, forensic scientists, lawyers and legal scholars sponsored by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
And they concluded that her methodology for identification had no basis in science, but the damage had already been done. Dale Johnson spent four years on death row for a double homicide that he didn't commit. But he was fortunate in that even though his trial left him impoverished, his attorney stayed on his case pro bono and took on the appeals. The psychological trauma inflicted on those who were wrongfully convicted, especially for people who are innocent and sit on death row, is well documented.
It isn't just the conviction that stays with the wrongfully convicted, it's the aftermath. Dale lost it all. He lost his stepdaughter, his property. His wife divorced him. It wasn't until well into his 80s, actually earlier this year that Dale finally received some compensation for his time spent in prison. The Innocence Project provides support for therapy and social services for its clients who are forced to cope with the harms associated with their wrongful conviction. You can donate to the Innocence Project by visiting W-W Innocence Project again.
Next week, we'll explore the junk science of fingerprint evidence. Wrongful conviction junk science is a production of Loba for Good Podcast's in association with Signal Company No. One prick's, thanks to our executive producer Jason Flom and the team at Signal Company No. One executive producer Kevin Bords, and senior producers Capricorn Habour and Brett Spangler. Our music was composed by DJ Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram at Duban. Josh followed the wrongful conviction podcast on Facebook and on Instagram at wrongful conviction and on Twitter at wrongful conviction.
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