One summer night in 1989, 18-year-old Melissa Koontz disappeared from a grocery store parking lot in Springfield.
She was found a week later in a cornfield west of town, stabbed to death.
Thomas McMillen, then 39, was convicted of Koontz’s murder in 1991, along with Gary Edgington, then 34. Both men are serving life sentences for the murder, but now a DNA collection method developed in Europe could cast doubt on their guilt.
Springfield private investigator Bill Clutter says the two men may be innocent. A member of the Downstate Innocence Project, which investigates criminal cases in which Illinois inmates may have been wrongly convicted, Clutter is hoping to exonerate the men using the same DNA technique that cleared JonBenet Ramsey’s family of involvement in her 1996 murder.
Known as Touch DNA, the method of collecting DNA has been used in Holland since about 1997, but it is still relatively uncommon in the U.S. Clutter says it could be used to find previously unknown DNA samples in the Koontz murder.
Touch DNA can obtain a DNA sample from as few as eight epithelial skin cells left behind by a forceful touch on a victim’s clothing, according to Richard and Selma Eikelenboom, the Dutch husband-and-wife scientists who have spearheaded its use in criminal cases.
Their work helped free Timothy Masters, a Colorado man wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned for almost a decade. His was the first case of evidence gathered by Touch DNA overturning a conviction.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Masters said of the moment he learned he would be freed. Masters spoke Oct. 28 at UIS for a presentation by the Innocence Project.
“After nine-and-a-half years being locked up for something I didn’t do, I wouldn’t believe it until the door hit me in the butt on the way out of the prison.”
The Innocence Project began investigating the Koontz case in 2008 and requested that the Sangamon County circuit court review the case after the prosecution’s star witness recanted his story. The group is focusing on McMillen’s case, though Edgington will likely benefit from the investigation as well, Clutter says.
Video of the presentation, courtesy of the University of Illinois-Springfield
Despite a lack of any physical evidence linking McMillen and Edgington to the Koontz murder, Clutter says the pair was convicted solely on the false testimony of Donald “Goose” Johnston, then 29.
Johnston originally told police that McMillan, Edgington, Danny Pocklington — whose age at that time is disputed — and himself had intended to rob Koontz, but the intended robbery went sour. He fingered Edgington and McMillen as the main culprits, Clutter says, adding that both men had prior criminal histories.
The case happened before DNA evidence was widely used in criminal cases, and Koontz’s body was badly decomposed when found, so evidence that could have cleared McMillen and Edgington went untested, Clutter says.
Murder charges against Johnston were dropped because of his cooperation, Clutter notes, though Johnston did serve time for other charges in connection with the crime. Clutter says Johnston later confessed to telling prosecutors what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.
“He literally broke down crying,” Clutter says of Johnston’s 2008 recantation. “He basically said, ‘This has weighed on me for all these years,’ and he felt relieved to get this off his chest.”
The exonerated Masters says Touch DNA has the potential to free many other wrongly-convicted prisoners.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “I’m positive that I’m not the only innocent person that was in prison or that is in prison.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.