Life sentence overturned

  • Robert Lee Stinson was released from the New Lisbon Correctional Institution last Friday after serving 23 years of his life in prison sentence.
  • Stinson contacted the Wisconsin Innocence Project to ask for help in reexamining his case and proving his innocence of a 1984 murder.
  • Bite-marks on the victim's body identified Stinson when he was convicted, but WIP experts reported the marks do not match.
  • The case has received national attention, but locals involved in the case have revealed more complexity to the situation.

After serving 23 years of a life sentence, Robert Lee Stinson was released from the New Lisbon Correctional Institution in Milwaukee last Friday.

Stinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 62-year-old Ione Cychosz.

Cychosz was found beaten, partially mutilated, bitten and stabbed. The bite marks on the victim's body were analyzed among other evidence to prove Stinson's guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Through conviction, rejected appeals and two decades of incarceration, Stinson has maintained that he is innocent. He asked the Wisconsin Innocence Project, managed through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, to reexamine his case and prove his innocence.

Byron Lichstein of the WIP was appointed as Stinson's defense attorney.

"If there are new forms of evidence, we investigate that and we look for new forms of science or technology," Lichstein said.

He said the WIP prepared by working with the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office.

"We arranged for DNA testing and a new analysis of the bite marks," Lichstein said. "Both the DNA and the new analysis of the marks pointed away from Stinson."

Stinson has a status conference in six months to determine whether or not the state will dismiss his charges.

Stinson's unusual case is a source of triumph and has received national attention, but many accounts fail to acknowledge the complexity of the case.

Daniel Blinka, a Marquette Law professor, was asked to investigate the case in 1984 when he was the assistant district attorney in the sexual assault unit. He said police believed the crime's brutality indicated more than one murderer.

L. Thomas Johnson, an adjunct professor in the School of Dentistry, was also involved in the case. As a forensic odontologist Johnson was one of the experts consulted to examine the bite marks.

"At that time there were no eyewitnesses or suspects, and the victim's body had 11 or 12 bite-marks on her breasts and pubic regions," Blinka said.

He said they used state-of-the-art technology in 1985. He said all information and evidence was shared with the defense so the defense could consult its own experts.

"When we were investigating we used the bite marks to eliminate five other people as possible suspects, one of which was Stinson's twin brother," Blinka said.

He said they compared the twins' teeth after telling their mother they would not proceed with the case against Robert Stinson if the only significant difference was his missing tooth.

"We found significant differences and eliminated the twin as a suspect," Blinka said. "We demonstrated to the jury that the evidence not only eliminated a twin brother, it also identified (Robert) Stinson," Blinka said.

He said the defense never called any experts to testify that the bite-mark analysis was incorrect. He said the experts consulted by the WIP disputed the bite-mark analysis, but did so 20 years after their investigation.

"This is not a case of wrongful conviction," Blinka said. "It is a question of what these evidentiary developments mean."

Steven Kohn was Robert Stinson's defense attorney when Stinson was convicted. Kohn cooperated with the WIP throughout its investigation.

Kohn said the report by the WIP's experts indicates that the bite-marks did not belong to Stinson. He said it also suggests Stinson should originally have been eliminated as a suspect, even considering differences in technology.

Kohn said he had originally tried to consult forensic odontologists to analyze the marks for the defense.

"Everybody we contacted said they could not work with us because the state experts had already presented their findings in a odontologist conference," Kohn said.

He said they had already been presented with the evidence and already knew the opinions of the state's experts, which compromised their involvement with the case.

"Mr. Stinson's release was not based on any wrongdoing of the defense. It was based on new scientific techniques and on renowned experts coming forward to disagree with former conclusions," Kohn said.

He said he was more than willing to cooperate with the WIP because it is important to do the right thing and to find justice.

"They are a very dedicated and thorough group of individuals," Kohn said. "They truly have a mission to do justice, and this is something they should get acknowledgment."