Consider the case of Jessie McKim, a man who is serving a life sentence without parole in Missouri after he was convicted in 1999 of strangling a woman named Wendy Wagnon, reports The Marshall Project. There are a handful of legal reasons to doubt the justice of the verdict against him — allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, disreputable witnesses and ineffective assistance of counsel, for example — but what distinguishes his story is the fact that there now is little reason to believe that Wagnon was murdered at all.
There is, instead, a consensus from several veteran forensic pathologists, doctors with thousands of cases as expert witnesses behind them, that Wagnon died from a self-administered overdose of methamphetamine after a weekend binge of drug use. If this is true, the prosecution’s original trial theory cannot be true. And that theory, as prosecutors and their medical examiner had told jurors in 1999, is that Wagnon died after being suffocated by McKim or his co-defendant, his uncle, a man named James Peavler.
No homicide, no murder case, no possible conviction, right? Wrong. No state or federal court has been willing to grant McKim relief despite what the doctors now say. In 2013, a local judge conducted a three-day hearing on the issue and concluded that Wagnon did, indeed, die of a meth overdose; that the medical examiner had gotten his cause-of-death wrong. But that judge denied McKim’s request for relief anyway, concluding that there were procedural reasons for barring his claims and, alternatively, that McKim had not conclusively proven his innocence because of a new theory state attorneys offered to explain the crime.
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