ST. LOUIS • Rodney Lincoln has spent half his life in prison and knows he will spend the rest there, too, unless a sealed Federal Express container en route to Lorton, Va., can unlock his cell.
Inside: A swab of red stain from the front edge of a kitchen sink. A piece of aluminum door frame with a bloody fingerprint. A steak knife and butcher knife, both with blood. A broom. And a piece of tissue paper left near a doorway where the killer fled.
Those are among the physical evidence stored for decades from the gruesome murder of JoAnn Tate and attack on her two young daughters at their St. Louis apartment on April 27, 1982.
Now, with the state's blessing, the evidence will be tested by Bode Technology, in the suburbs of Washington. It specializes in DNA comparisons, science not available at the time of the crime.
The Midwest Innocence Project is paying for the testing, believing the results will not only free Lincoln — whose case they've been fighting for years — but also point to a particular man it suspects of being the real killer.
Tate's family, however, hopes the tests will put a final stamp on Lincoln's conviction and provide closure.
A GRUESOME CRIME
Police who responded on that spring morning to Tate's apartment on Farrar Street encountered a gory scene.
Tate, 35, was facedown in a pool of blood, fatally stabbed in the chest and sexually assaulted with a broom. The killer delivered 10 stab wounds to Tate's daughter, Melissa, 7, and sliced the throat of Renee, 4.
Melissa feebly told relatives who found them, "Bill did it."
After several dead-ends in following that lead, St. Louis police obtained a composite drawing from Melissa's memory. One family member said it looked like a man Tate briefly dated — Rodney Lincoln.
Two days later, a detective showed Melissa and Renee a photo of a cousin and a mugshot of Lincoln, 37. Both reacted to Lincoln's picture. Later that day, the girls picked him out of a lineup.
Lincoln already had a record: He served time for killing a man in a fight in 1973.
The sisters' eyewitness identification dominated Lincoln's two trials: one that ended with a hung jury and another that led to two life sentences plus 15 years for manslaughter and first-degree assault.
TRYING TO PROVE INNOCENCE
To win Lincoln's release, his lawyers must show that a preponderance of evidence favors his innocence.
They are trying to do it with DNA. To get a test, they had to show there was "a reasonable probability" that a jury would have voted to acquit, had DNA results been available at trial.
It's been a seven-year legal battle in St. Louis Circuit Court.
Lincoln's case was one of six chosen for testing in 2003 by Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, from among 1,400 pre-DNA-era convictions. But her office reversed its support after learning more about the evidence available for testing.
The Midwest Innocence Project came on board in 2005, trying to force tests.
Rape tests on the victims did not yield enough DNA to compare.
DNA testing of a hair found at the crime scene showed it was not Lincoln's, even though an expert had testified in the second trial that it was a "match." Joyce's office argued that the results didn't mean anything because the hair wasn't necessarily the killer's.
That's when the defense began pushing for additional testing. This time, prosecutors did not oppose it.
Ed Postawko, the assistant circuit attorney handling the case, said in a statement that his office believed the courts ultimately would have ordered the testing anyway.
Laura O'Sullivan, legal director at the Midwest Innocence Project, said the items selected for the latest comparison are those they believe most likely to clear Lincoln.
In court filings, she noted that some of the knives were broken in the attack and did not have hilts that would have protected the killer's hand from sliding onto the blade.
She argued that bloody fingerprints on a knife and door frame, if not belonging to the victims, are most likely from the attacker. It's the same with blood on the sink, where Melissa testified the killer washed his hands, and the tissue found near the door, possibly used to wipe those hands dry.
O'Sullivan said the tests, which could cost over $10,000, are a milestone in Lincoln's case, a top priority for her group.
"We believe he is innocent and has been in there very long for a horrible, horrible crime," she said. "We are very hopeful this will be the key to his exoneration."
The testing agreement was filed Sept. 28.
When the container reaches Bode, O'Sullivan said, it should take only a couple weeks to determine whether there is enough DNA to develop a profile. If there is, a comparison to Lincoln would require four to six weeks more.
What happens from there will depend upon the results.
If there's no male profile, prosecutors likely would argue there is no proof of Lincoln's innocence. If there is a male profile that's not Lincoln's, results would be fed to state and federal databases, where Lincoln's lawyers think a match would be found.
O'Sullivan declined to comment further on suspicions regarding a different killer.
WAITING FOR AN END
Lincoln, who spent his 68th birthday in August at the maximum-security Jefferson City Correctional Center, is tired of waiting.
"I'm wanting it to come to an end," he said in a phone interview last week. "Once these tests come back, I'm confident it's going to help me even more, just like the last test did."
Renee Tate has since died of ovarian cancer; Melissa Tate could not be reached through family and has previously declined to comment on the crime. But in online posts, she has criticized past testing as an unnecessary expense and added trauma for her family.
Nathaniel Clenney, JoAnn Tate's brother, said his family also is eager for an end. He doubts the testing will produce any more proof, either way, and said he always believed his nieces' identification of Lincoln.
"There's no doubt in my mind he did this crime," Clenney said. "All they're doing here is cutting a wound open."