In January 2007, Jasper County (Iowa) Sheriff Mike Balmer was beaming with pride (and with good reason) as he announced that a Cold Case Squad of the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation had cracked the 20 year old unsolved murder of Karen Weber, a 32 year old woman who was found stabbed to death (and the apparent victim of a sexual assault) near a gravel road northwest of Prairie City on April 20, 1986. The case was solved after investigators found a match of DNA recovered from cigarette butts left at the crime scene and the DNA of Martin Duffy, a 45 year old man whose DNA in the form of saliva wound up in the state database after he was convicted for drunk driving in 2005.
Case solved? Not quite. Authorities knew that at least one other offender was involved because DNA from semen recovered from the victim did not match Duffy. On January 18, 2007, investigators travelled to Eldon, Missouri in search of answers. They went to Eldon to interrogate James Lee Cox, a man who they learned had been stabbed by Duffy in an unreported incident less than two weeks after the Weber murder. Thinking that perhaps the stabbing may have been connected to the Weber murder, investigators interrogated Cox for hours and left Eldon with a confession from Cox that he was present at the crime scene with Duffy and that he had held down Weber's arms while Duffy raped her.
Case solved? Not so fast. Cox's DNA did not match the DNA from semen recovered from Weber's body. This meant that either Cox was present at the murder but did not rape Weber or ejaculate (an an unknown third perpetrator did) or that Cox, who recanted his confession, was innocent of the murder and had been pressured into falsely confessing to the crime. The case grew even more complicated when a second DNA match was found. The semen was linked to a third man in the Iowa Department of Corrections serving a 40 year gig for drug possession and dealing. This as yet unnamed third party knew and was friendly with Duffy but did not know Cox.
Today, the final shoe dropped in the case for Cox, who was represented ably throughout these proceedings by defense attorneys Richard Phelps and Maria Rhutenberg. Prosecutors agreed to the dismissal of charges against Cox, recognizing that the DNA evidence (and the expected testimony of the third, as yet unnamed party) exonerated Cox of the crime. In light of this new evidence, the falsity of Cox's confession became apparent (it was filled with factual errors and failed to mention the presence of the other male whose DNA was found at the crime scene).
Although the investigators are at fault for their role in obtaining a false confession (and causing Cox to serve 7 months in jail under a murder rap), Jasper County Attorney Steve Johnson deserves credit for not prolonging Mr. Cox's wrongful incarceration and for working with defense counsel to clear up the mistake. I've seen far too many cases in which prosecutors switch theories to accomodate a false confession and take innocent men to trial rather than admit error. It's refreshing to find one involving a prosecutor who is more concerned with justice than with his conviction rate.