In January 2017, attorneys for John N. Prante sought permission to test DNA of evidence found at the scene of the June 21, 1978, murder of Karla L. Brown, and run a fingerprint found on a coffee carafe that authorities said Prante touched, against various law enforcement databases. They said it could provide “overwhelming evidence of Prante’s innocence,” if they matched someone else. State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons did not object to the request.
Gibbons could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
Prante attorney Lindsay Hagy, with the Exoneration Project in Chicago, said Friday that the DNA evidence was too degraded to develop a profile, and the fingerprint matched no one. But Hagy said Prante’s attorneys would still file an appeal of his conviction next week, citing the use of the now “completely discredited” bite mark analysis that was used in Prante’s arrest and trial. Hagy said that the forensic dentist that they consulted said that “even in the bite mark field,” it was “the lowest quality of evidence possible. You would not even be able to deem it a bite mark,” she added.
Lawyer Dana Delger said that the Innocence Project is aware of 24 convictions and seven indictments that were overturned due to faulty bite mark analysis.
In 2016, a White House science council concluded that bite mark analysis is “scientifically unreliable at present” and far from meeting “the scientific standards for foundational validity.” They also concluded that examiners “cannot consistently agree on whether an injury is a human bite mark and cannot identify the source of bite mark with reasonable accuracy.”
Hagy also said that the appeal would cite the possible contamination of witness memories in the four years between the murder and Prante’s arrest.
Don Weber, who was state’s attorney at the time, rejected any idea that testing or an appeal would change the appropriate outcome of the case.
“They brought all that stuff up (at trial),” he said. “This wasn’t a bite mark case. This was a case about eyewitnesses — Prante bragged about killing her. Prante bragged about biting her on the neck,” Weber said, adding that Prante also knew details about the crime scene that he should not have known.
“It’s just a waste of everyone’s time.”
Weber reopened the case when be became state’s attorney, and concluded in 1980 that a mark in autopsy photos had probably been caused by a bite. Two experts testified that the bite marks in the photos were consistent with Prante’s teeth, although they didn’t say it was an exact match.
Two defense experts questioned the science behind bite mark analysis and said it wasn’t clear that it was a bite at all, and insisted that meaningful comparisons with people’s teeth were impossible.
Weber speculated at the time that Brown spurned a sexual advance from Prante, who was drinking and smoking marijuana at a friend’s house in the 900 block of East Acton Street and may have spotted Brown moving in next door.
Prante, then 28, was an unemployed barge worker and Navy veteran with no significant criminal record. Brown, a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, was engaged to be married.
The case has drawn national TV attention. Weber co-authored a book on the case.
The appeal may ultimately have no effect on Prante’s time behind bars. Weber said that any reversal of Prante’s conviction would itself probably be appealed and could take years to resolve.
Prante, now 69, who was convicted and sentenced to 75 years in prison in 1983, is scheduled to be paroled on Dec. 9, 2019.
This article originally ran on stltoday.com.
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