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The 1st DNA Exoneration In The
History Of The World: Gary Dotson

In 1988, Gary Dotson became the first man in the history of the world to be exonerated by DNA.* But it was not an easy path to get there. And it frustratingly took over a decade afterward for him to get fully pardoned. In 1977, the complaining witness was a 16-year-old girl. She was in a romantic relationship with a 19-year-old man. They were sexually active. She came to the belief that she was pregnant. She later discovered that she was actually not pregnant. But this belief caused her to tailspin with anxiety and fear. She was living in a foster home with conservative foster parents. She feared she would be kicked out of the home if they found out she got pregnant as a result of “living in sin”. After she left work from her job at Long John Silver’s, she wandered around for hours hatching a story of what to tell her parents. She came up with a story based largely on a historical fiction novel she was familiar with “Sweet Savage Love”. In that story, three men encounter the heroine. One man rapes the heroine while the two other men laugh.

The Coverup Plan Turns into a Police Report

Her plan to tell her parents this fabrication in the private space of their home was disrupted. Before she arrived home a police officer stopped her. The police officer noticed how distressed she was and became suspicious. The complaining witness ended up telling the officer the story she lifted from “Sweet Savage Love”.

The Identification that Didn't Make Sense

The complaining witness picked Gary Dotson out of a photo lineup. Her choice was not out of the blue, but was prompted by encouragement from law enforcement to pick Gary Dotson. Never mind that the description she gave was a clean-shaven man and Dotson had a mustache that couldn’t have grown in the 5 days since the incident. That was considered a small inconsistency that could have been swept under the rug by the investigator and prosecution.

Trial Testimony that was Claimed to be 100% Certain

Dotson was convicted at trial. Like many false accusers, she leaned into her testimony at trial communicating 100% certainty of her identification. We later learn that she was just acting and that she knew the entire time that she had made the whole thing up. But she was already too far into the story to back out now. In for a dime, in for a dollar. And Dotson paid the price.

Criminal Justice System Says "No Takebacks"

The complaining witness lived with this lie for the next six years. She was riddled with guilt over sending who she knew was an innocent man to prison. Finally, at the age of 22, she came forward and admitted that she lied and asked that Dotson to be sent free. One would think that is a simple request and that the justice system would respond when a purported victim comes forward and communicates that she was in fact not a victim at all. But that is not what happened at all. The prosecution dug in their heels. People from the prosecution and the media accused her of lying and not so subtly suggested that she was crazy. A judge denied Dotson’s post-conviction relief request.

Vindication Through a DNA Test

It was not until late in 1987 when Dotson’s attorney was reading a Newsweek article about DNA that the idea to try and use DNA came to fruition. DNA tests were a relatively new technology at the time. They had mostly been used for paternity tests. And there was one high-profile murder that was solved in England. They had never been used to exonerate someone before. Dotson agreed to a DNA test. And on August 15, 1988, the test came back. Dotson was excluded as being the source of semen that was inside the complaining witnesses. And significantly, the complaining witness’s boyfriend’s DNA was consistent with the semen that was present. There was unmistakable physical evidence that Dotson was innocent.

Justice Delayed

I wish I could tell you that after getting DNA proof, they immediately released Dotson.   But that is not what happened. It was not until a full year later that the governor refused to pardon Dotson, but agreed to release Dotson with time served. He was finally free. But still not legally innocent. It was not until 2003, that Dotson finally received a full pardon. Justice came, but boy did the wheels of justice move slowly.

Takeaways for the Falsely Accused

If you are falsely accused pay close attention to if the accuser has a motive to lie. According to DeZutter’s research on false accusations of sexual assault, motives for the accusation typically fall into eight categories.  In Dotson’s case, the motive was “alibi”. Which may mean something different to what you think of when you hear the word alibi. It’s not a person verifying you were with them during the crime in question (like what you often see on crime shows). Alibi in this context means the more broad definition of being used as a reason or excuse to avoid blame. The complaining witness in Dotson’s case used a fictitious story of sexual assault to avoid negative repercussions from her foster parents for “living in sin”. It’s an extreme story to cover yourself. But she unfortunately did it. Alibi is just one of the 8 categories of motives. The category of "financial gain" is explored in my Brian Banks article

You might think people would just naturally see a motive to lie and take it into consideration. But there’s been over 3,000 wrongfully convicted people who get convicted going off assumptions of how things work. And 63% of those people were sent to prison where lying was a contributing factor. Identify the motive to lie, and really go after it at trial. There is no other way to combat a lie. It’s extremely rare that you’ll find someone who will admit they have lied like in the Gary Dotson case. And even in the Dotson case, it was after years of being in prison. You need to find the motive and utilize a strategy to highlight this motive at trial. Lies are notoriously difficult to overcome at trial unless you have a defense attorney who knows how to cross examine the lying witness. 


*Astute readers may believe that David Vasquez was the first person exonerated by DNA evidence. David Vasquez technically received a pardon before Gary Dotson. In Vasquez's case, the alternative perpetrator's DNA was found to be present at the scene of the crime.  But there was no DNA test excluding Vasquez as contributing to the crime. And the degree of proof that the DNA plays in the context of that case is somewhat controversial. To an extent, this is splitting hairs, but it becomes important when you understand that in Vasquez's case, one of law enforcement's theories was that Vasquez was working as a team with another suspect to accomplish the crime. Frankly, I think their theory was bogus. I believe Vasquez was wrongfully convicted. But Dotson's DNA test is much more radical and exculpatory. It excludes Dotson as a contributor. Not just evidence against an alternative perpetrator. 

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Peter Lindstrom, Esq.

Founder of Subzero Criminal Defense

I practice exclusively in the state of Minnesota. If you are falsely accused in Minnesota, contact me for a consultation. If you are falsely accused in another state or country, contact a qualified attorney in your jurisdiction. 

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