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Springfield man challenges child rape conviction

SPRINGFIELD (AP) — A 42-year-old southwest Missouri man serving four consecutive life sentences for the 2008 kidnapping and rape of a 7-year-girl, returned to court Thursday with a post-conviction appeal that suggests police and prosecutors targeted the wrong man.

Jeffery Allen Dickson of Springfield was convicted by a Greene County jury in August 2009 of sexually assaulting the child and forcing her to smoke drugs before setting a fire to cover up his crimes. He remains imprisoned at the Potosi Correctional Center in southeast Missouri and attended the hearing via a long-distance video hookup.

Val Leftwich, Dickson’s state-appointed public defender, told Circuit Judge Michael Cordonnier that new evidence unavailable at trial showed that one of her client’s DNA samples was tainted when the Missouri Highway Patrol’s crime lab mistakenly processed genetic samples from the victim and suspect simultaneously — along with as many as 96 other unrelated samples — in a breach of protocol that could cause cross-contamination.

University of Kansas molecular biology professor Dean Stetler, hired as an expert witness on Dickson’s behalf, testified in support of that theory. But Greene County assistant prosecutor Russ Dempsey sharply questioned Stetler’s qualifications, noting that the KU professor was not accredited by any national forensic organizations and not subject to those groups’ professional standards.

Dempsey also called his own forensics expert from a St. Louis County company initially hired on Dickson’s behalf. That scientist said Dickson’s DNA matched a sample taken from the victim — but so would DNA found on one in six other black men, on average. The state’s DNA test showed a one-in-3,636 chance that Dickson committed the crime.

In addition to the disputed DNA findings, the crux of Dickson’s request for a new trial is that police and fire investigators overlooked a second house fire one block away on West Nichols Street, just two months before the attack. The fire’s location is significant, Leftwich said, since prosecutors argued that Dickson — who was never charged with arson — intentionally set the fire to cover up the attack. So if the “burnt” house the victim described was actually elsewhere, the state’s entire line of reasoning unravels, she said.

The 7-year-old described an infant’s mobile in the bedroom where she was raped, and a hole in the floor of the house where she was lured. But Amanda Yocum, a single mother who was living at 1024 W. Nichols St. with her 2-year-old son when their rental home caught fire, contradicted the victim’s description of the bedroom where the attack occurred. Yocum and her son were not home at the time of the fire.

The girl also told police that she and her assailant climbed through a window into the home, but fire scene photos showed the home’s window screens remained intact. The Associated Press typically doesn’t name victims of sexual assault. Neither the child nor any of her family members attended the hearing.

Also testifying Thursday was Norman Daugherty, who said Dickson came to his home several hours after the fire under a previous arrangement they had to complete some odd jobs. Daugherty said he didn’t answer the door because he didn’t have the $50 he had promised Dickson, who remained outside the home for several hours.

Daugherty said he was never contacted by police or Dickson’s attorneys, a lapse that could bolster Dickson’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Dickson’s conviction in March 2011, though the appeals court did not hear evidence about the second house fire or the DNA errors. Dickson filed his current appeal in November 2011, with the two-day Springfield hearing giving his attorney a chance to lay out her claims of actual innocence in greater detail. Cordonnier is expected to take the arguments under advisement and not immediately issue a ruling on Dickson’s request for a new trial.

Today’s scheduled witnesses include the state crime lab analyst who processed Dickson’s DNA test as well as his first lawyer, a Greene County public defender.

Dempsey said he remains confident that Dickson, who has a history of drug offenses and other non-violent criminal convictions, is responsible for the brutal attack, regardless of the location.

“Whether she was raped and sodomized at this location, or a location 326 feet away, is not a difference we believe should result in them winning this motion (for a new trial),” he said after the hearing.

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