THE BLOG
04/01/2016 04:45 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

Free Rodney Lincoln - the Steven Avery no one knows about

Enraged and breathless, armchair detectives across America are demanding the urgent release of Netflix star and convicted murderer Steven Avery - the poster boy for wrongful imprisonment. But Matt Doran wants you to meet a man with far less celebrity, and a much stronger case for freedom.

HE IS the Steven Avery no one knows about, and as a country we should be deeply ashamed. 71-year-old Rodney Lincoln has spent almost half his life in a prison cell. And the injustice is amplified with every miserable millisecond he is denied freedom.

The prosecution tale unfolds like this: one night in 1982, Rodney broke into a home in St Louis, Missouri, and did the unconscionable. Raped and slaughtered a mother named Joann Tate, before using the same bloodied knife to attack her kids.

Seven-year-old Melissa DeBoer and her four-year-old sister woke to discover their mom motionless on the floor, Rodney standing above her, flushed with enjoyment from the kill. Moments later he would repeatedly plunge the knife into both children.

"I opened my eyes and I could see him sitting at the end of my mom's bed smoking cigarettes and watching TV," Melissa tells Crime Watch Daily. "He was just so calm. He was waiting for us to die, all of us."

It was too late for Joann, but somehow the kids survived. A month later, Rodney Lincoln - Joann's ex boyfriend - was in handcuffs. He had two alibis for the night of the murder, but was put before a line-up at the mercy of a traumatised seven-year-old girl. Melissa picked him out in an instant. Was she certain it was him?
"Oh my God, yes. It was visceral." And so prosecutors had a star witness.

Physical evidence was thin, aside from a hair found on a blanket that was deemed to be "a match" for Rodney. And the clincher? He had a history. He'd accidentally killed a man years earlier while trying to defend himself in a bar fight. He goes to trial but the jury is hung. At the retrial, the state's lawyers get their way. He is convicted and sentenced to two life terms, plus 15 years. Another monster who will die in prison.

Here's the problem: Rodney Lincoln was never in Joann's home that night, and had absolutely nothing to do with her murder. In their bumbling quest for justice, police and prosecutors set their sights on the wrong man. And in their haste, they allowed the real killer's crime to metastasize.

So if not him, then who, and how can anyone be so sure? Watch as the tenets of the prosecution case disintegrate. In 2010, DNA testing proved that the damning hair found at the crime scene was not Rodney's. Lawyers for the Midwest Innocence Project tried to have the conviction set aside at the time, but the state dug in and celebrated the testimony of their star witness - Melissa DeBoer.

Now comes the bombshell. The day after our investigation into the case aired on Crime Watch Daily late last year, Melissa called police, horrified and overcome with flashbacks. What she would say would set in motion a chain of events that may finally expose one of the more grievous injustices in modern American history.

"Rodney did not kill my mom and he did not try to kill my Renee and I."
Melissa goes on to say that somewhere along the way, as a rattled and bereaved seven-year-old, she was told what to believe. "I allowed my brain to be manipulated."

The epiphany was triggered by a prison interview we conducted with Rodney himself, but also an alternate theory about who was really responsible - a deviant by the name of Tommy Lynn Sells. Police believe Sells plotted and carried out the murders of at least 22 people - many in them killed during break-ins with unnerving similarities to this case. He was executed in Texas in 2014.

"Tommy Lynn Sells was at my house that night, not Rodney,'' Melissa says. "This is my statement. This is my recanting of my prior testimony. No matter what it costs me I am dedicated to getting Rodney out of prison."

And so with that statement, made four months ago, the state's case was obliterated. Not a shred of physical evidence against Rodney, and no witnesses.
You can only imagine the panic that exploded behind closed doors at the state attorney's office. After all, compensation will not come cheap.

You could be forgiven for thinking the developments triggered an almighty dash to make amends, but as no one knows better than Rodney, the wheels of justice are achingly slow to turn. Finally, he was granted a two-day evidentiary hearing this month, where Melissa and others made brave and impassioned pleas for his urgent release. The judge is considering his verdict, when in reality there is nothing at all to consider.

The state can no longer ignore its own staggering failure. Rodney - who has always vehemently maintained his innocence - must be freed this week. His release would add the rapidly increasing number of felons exonerated for wrongful convictions - in fact, more convictions were overturned last year than at any other time in U.S. history.

And what a moment it will be when, as a free man, he collapses into the arms of the woman they said he tried kill. "I want to give (Melissa) a big hug and thank her," Rodney says from his cell. "I have nothing to forgive (her) for. She saved my life."

- Matt Doran is the host of Crime Watch Daily.