Watch CBSN Live

Inmate Freed After 23-Year 'Mistake'

A man in prison 23 years for rape was freed Wednesday after DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch called the incarceration of Johnny Briscoe a "terrible mistake," one exacerbated by the county crime lab's failure to locate evidence when McCulloch first requested a review six years ago.

Briscoe, 52, did not appear at a news conference announcing his freedom. McCulloch said he is expected to speak to the media Thursday, after spending a day in seclusion with his family.

The name of the new suspect in the rape was not released, but McCulloch said the man is already serving a life term for another St. Louis-area rape that occurred just a few months after the one for which Briscoe was convicted. McCulloch said a decision has not been made on whether to charge that man, especially since he's already imprisoned for life.

The victim in the case "is very traumatized by this," McCulloch said. "But she takes comfort that the other man is already in prison."

Under a law passed this year, Briscoe would be eligible for up to $36,500 in compensation from the state for each year he was wrongly incarcerated but he must agree not to file suit.

The rape occurred on Oct. 21, 1982. McCulloch said a man was burglarizing the victim's apartment, and when she awoke, he raped her.

After the attack, the rapist stayed for about an hour and spoke with the victim in a well-lit room, telling her his name was Johnny Briscoe. McCulloch said the rapist and Briscoe knew each other. The victim and rapist shared a cigarette and the rapist asked to call on her again.

He did, just hours later as police were at the apartment. They traced the call to a pay phone near Briscoe's home. The woman later provided details for a composite drawing that looked like Briscoe, and pointed him out from a mug shot that had been taken for a separate burglary.

"This was a strong case," said McCulloch, who was not the prosecutor at the time the case was tried.

At his trial in 1983, Briscoe did not help his own cause. His alibi was that on the night of the rape, he was with a nephew watching Game 7 of the 1982 baseball World Series, a game the Cardinals won 6-3 over the Milwaukee Brewers to win the world championship.

"Unfortunately, when he was asked who won the game he gave the World Series to the Brewers," McCulloch said. "The alibi was gone at that point."

Briscoe was sentenced to 30 years for rape, plus an additional 15 years on several related convictions.

In 2000, when the U.S. became equipped with technology to test DNA evidence that had previously been untestable, McCulloch ordered a review of about 10 old cases in which DNA evidence might confirm or deny guilt.

But the crime lab could find none of the old evidence, including that from the 1982 rape, despite repeated requests from McCulloch over the next few years.

During an inventory of the lab in 2004, the cigarette butt shared by the rapist and the victim was found in a freezer at the lab.

McCulloch's office did not learn of that find until July 6 and immediately ordered testing at labs in St. Louis County and Columbia. Those tests confirmed the DNA on the cigarette butt belonged to the other man.

"Mr. Briscoe is absolutely excluded as the donor of the DNA," McCulloch said.

On Tuesday, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Bernhardt Drumm Jr. signed an order finding Briscoe innocent. Officials with McCulloch's office drove to the prison in Charleston and picked him up Wednesday.

"Inexcusible is as polite as I can be in explaining why this wasn't found in 2000, 2001, 2002," McCulloch said.

A spokeswoman for St. Louis County police, who operate the crime lab, said a statement will be released on Thursday.

View CBS News In