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Some question whether freed inmate is innocent

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 9:29 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — The DNA evidence that won Andre Davis his release from prison has not convinced prosecutors in Champaign County that he is innocent of 3-year-old Brianna Stickel’s murder.

State’s Attorney Julia Reitz said her office will contest Davis’ petition for a certificate of innocence, a move that could prevent Davis from collecting money from a state fund set up for wrongfully convicted inmates.

“Based on our review of the two trials and the evidence we believe he is guilty of murder,” Reitz said. “We can’t prove it, 30 years later, at this time.”

Much of the evidence in the case files used in Davis’ two trials in the early 1980s has been lost or destroyed, but his lawyers say nothing that remains can link Davis to the crime.

Davis, who spent nearly 32 years behind bars, served more time than any other Illinois inmate who has had their conviction overturned since at least 1989, according to the Center On Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s law school.

Brianna’s body was found in a house in her neighborhood where two acquaintances of Davis lived. Blood and semen samples found on bedclothes at the scene had been used with 1980s technology to finger Davis as the killer, but DNA tests decades later matched them to a witness who testified in court against Davis. Samples recovered from Brianna’s body are missing.

The Chicago Tribune is not naming the witness because he has not been charged with a crime.

Police in Rantoul have reopened the murder case, but Chief Paul Farber would not say whether the witness who matches the DNA is a suspect.

“After 32 years, we’re getting very few tips,” Farber said.

If a judge rules that a preponderance of the evidence proves Davis was not guilty, Davis could receive as much as $190,000 based on the formula the state uses to compensate wrongfully convicted inmates who serve significant time in prison, said his lawyer, Jane Raley.

Rebeca Spragg, Brianna’s mother, remains unconvinced that Davis is innocent.

“I felt like the evidence against him was good enough … I still feel that way,” she said. “He may not have been totally alone in it, but he was involved in it.”

Spragg had divorced Brianna’s father, Michael Stickel, and remarried not long before Brianna was killed.

After Brianna’s death, Spragg said she and her family moved repeatedly before settling a few years ago in North Carolina.

“Our life has been very guarded all these years. I haven’t felt safe anywhere,” she said.

The prospect that no one will be charged in Brianna’s murder is not unusual among the many wrongful conviction cases, said Raley.

“These cases are so old, and often there isn’t a lot of evidence left,” she said. “But we know Andre didn’t do it.”

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