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Native American Man, Tall Bear, Exonerated By DNA Evidence After 26 Years in Prison

Johnny Tall Bear

Johnny Edward Tall Bear, a member of the Iowa Nation tribe, has been exonerated by DNA evidence after spending 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit – thanks to DNA evidence and help from the Innocence Project. Tall Bear, whose tribal name Pahoo means “brave warrior”, was convicted of murder in 1992 and sentenced to a life without parole. A Court of Criminal Appeals later raised the sentence to life imprisonment.

Tall Bear Began His Ordeal with Witness Misrepresentation After a Body Was Discovered

It all began when the mutilated body of a homeless man was discovered on a garbage dump in Oklahoma City on October 3, 1991. A witness, Floyd Lewis, who knew Tall Bear from the neighborhood stated to police that he saw a man like Tall Bear and another unidentified assailant beat the homeless man to death. Based on Lewis’ flawed testimony and zero physical evidence, Tall Bear was prosecuted and convicted, the Innocence Project writes.

Lewis had first testified in a preliminary hearing stating, “I don’t think Tall Bear done it.” But he went on to testify in trial that he saw Tall Bear and some other unidentified man fighting with the homeless man.

According to the Innocence Project, a now discredited forensic analyst, Joyce Gilchrist, was called in to testify for the prosecution. Gilchrist ran tests on the blood samples found on the victim, and revealed that four different blood types were at the murder scene. Tall Bear didn’t match any of the blood types. However, Gilchrist attempted to play down this significance, by claiming the blood was unlikely to be from the murder since there were only two assailants.

Years later, a study by the FBI in 2001 found that Gilchrist had overstepped “the limits of forensic science” in at least five of her cases which lead to a review of thousands of cases handled by her as a state forensic analyst.

Innocence Project Ran DNA Tests That Helped to Vacate Tall Bear’s Life Sentence

Tall Bear reached out to Innocence Project for help when his attorneys came to a dead end. Innocence Project secured the approval of the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office to conduct independent analysis on the blood samples. They found that serologist Gilchrist had not only been wrong again in some results, but the DNA of Tall Bear was also never in any of the four blood samples found at the scene of the crime.

Based on the new DNA results, the Oklahoma County District Attorney collaborated with the Innocence Project to file a motion in the courts. With the evidence presented before the courts, District Court Judge Glenn M. Jones vacated Tall Bear’s murder conviction and dismissed the charges against him. Tall Bear was freed again after 26 years of wrongful incarceration and was given a rousing welcome home by his Iowa Tribe.

“I’ve been saying for more than two decades that I didn’t have anything to do with this horrible crime. I’ve always known that I’m innocent and now the DNA has proved it,” said Tall Bear.

Welcome back to Iowa Tall Bear!

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