By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, Associated Press
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — The crime was brutal: a 7-year-old girl choked, raped and forced to smoke drugs before she was left for dead in a fire set by her attacker. Somehow, she survived. Firefighters founder her at dawn, stumbling through the street and wearing just one shoe.
The child couldn't initially name her attacker, but police quickly targeted a 36-year-old with a lengthy rap sheet who had first met the girl hours earlier at an all-night card game hosted by his cousin. The girl's grandmother brought her there and left her to watch TV and play video games in a nearby bedroom.
A Greene County jury found Jeffery Allen Dickson guilty of child kidnapping, forcible rape and forcible sodomy in the April 6, 2008, attack, and a judge sentenced Dickson to four consecutive life terms. He remains imprisoned at the Potosi Correctional Center in southeast Missouri.
The case shocked and horrified local residents, and Dickson's arrest days later eased the minds of those who feared that a child rapist remained on the loose. But new evidence unearthed by Dickson's state-appointed appeals court lawyer and reviewed as part of a five-month Associated Press investigation suggests that a rush to judgment could have caused police and prosecutors to target the wrong man.
According to prosecutors, Dickson set the house at 1024 W. Nichols St. ablaze to cover up his crime — presumably leaving his young victim to die at a home he and his cousin visited earlier that night to buy a used television. But Springfield police and fire investigators appear to have overlooked, or downplayed, a second house that burned down one block away and on the same street, two months before the attack.
Tan carpet fibers found in the girl's hair resemble ones from the house at 1101 W. Nichols St., not the dark brown carpet in the house that caught fire two months later.
The distraught child's account of the attack and her testimony at trial 16 months later had significant contradictions: the girl 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 with the promise of a Barbie doll. But the single mother who lived at 1024 W. Nichols said her toddler son's room didn't have such a toy. There was no hole in the floor before the fire. And the doctors and nurses who examined the girl found no evidence of smoke inhalation.
The Associated Press typically does not name victims of sexual assault.
The child repeatedly described the home where she was raped as "burnt" — which would also suggest the attack didn't take place where police said.
With no eyewitnesses and conflicting statements from the seven card players, prosecutors relied on DNA evidence to help convict Dickson. But Dickson's DNA sample, which showed a one-in-3,636 chance that he committed the crime, was tainted when the state crime lab improperly commingled the suspect's biological sample with that of the victim and two other men, records show. He was never charged with arson.
"The state argued that he left her in a burning house to show motive," said Valerie Leftwich, a state public defender handling Dickson's current appeal. "They knew my defendant had been at that location. They can't tie him to the other house."
Leftwich declined to make Dickson available for an interview. But in a series of brief telephone conversations from prison, Dickson repeatedly professed his innocence to The Associated Press.
In March 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Dickson's August 2009 conviction, though the appeals court did not hear evidence about the second house fire or the DNA errors. Dickson, who is now 41, was scheduled to return to court for a two-day hearing starting Tuesday, but the hearing was postponed Friday.
Leftwich said prosecutors asked for more time to review testimony by an expert witness, Dean Stetler, a University of Kansas molecular biology professor.
Russ Dempsey, one of two assistant prosecutors at the first trial, said he remains convinced of Dickson's guilt.
"He was the one who went in and raped her. It's clear to me, it's a good conviction," Dempsey said.
Hours before the attack, the victim's grandmother was among a group of at least seven card players at the home of Dickson's cousin Gary McElroy. According to testimony at his trial, Dickson didn't play cards but instead came and went from the home several times.