News

Tall Bear, Member of Iowa Tribe, Exonerated After Serving 26 Years for a Murder DNA Evidence Proves He Didn’t Commit

By Innocence Staff

Johnny Tallbear is exonerated on June 11, 2018 in Oklahoma City. Photo by Nick Oxford.

Tall Bear is one of the first Native people exonerated by DNA in the United States

(Oklahoma City – June 11, 2018) With the consent of the Oklahoma County District Attorney, district court judge Glenn M. Jones vacated the 1992 murder conviction and dismissed the charges against Johnny Edward Tall Bear based on new DNA evidence proving his innocence. Tall Bear served 26 years for murder based on the erroneous statements of an alleged eyewitness who claimed to have seen Tall Bear fighting with the victim but later expressed doubts about his identification.

Support Tall Bear as he transitions home via Amazon Wishlist

“We are grateful to District Attorney David Prater and Assistant District Attorney Jen Hinsperger for collaborating with us to secure DNA testing in this case, and for expeditiously moving to vacate Mr. Tall Bear’s conviction once the results were obtained,” said Karen Thompson, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

“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.”

“The DNA proving Mr. Tall Bear’s innocence was pivotal to bringing an end to his wrongful incarceration.”

“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.

On October 3, 1991, the body of a homeless man, known as “Pops” (there was no identification on the body), was found on top of a pile of garbage near a deserted building in an area of Oklahoma City frequented by a homeless population. The man had been brutally stabbed and beaten. The pockets of his pants were turned inside out and had small bloodstains on them. Police also collected several pieces of torn up paper bag left on the ground near to the victim’s body that they believed had been used to “staunch a wound.”

Tall Bear became a suspect after a man named Floyd Lewis (who was familiar with Tall Bear from the neighborhood) alleged to police that he witnessed two men fighting with a third man, who was lying on the ground. Lewis claimed that from the distance of a football field away, at dusk, he saw two men on their knees beating the victim. Lewis claimed that after he yelled at the men to stop, one of them stood up and, while “making Indian,” shook a cane. Seeing this, Lewis stated, “he knew it was Tall Bear.” It was based on this identification—and no other evidence—that Mr. Tall Bear was prosecuted and convicted.

Support Tall Bear as he transitions home via Amazon Wishlist

At a preliminary hearing, Lewis stated, “I don’t think Tall Bear done it.” Nonetheless, Lewis went on to identify Tall Bear at his subsequent trial, testifying that he saw Tall Bear and another person fighting with the victim, although he was unable to identify the second assailant.

“The DNA proving Mr. Tall Bear’s innocence was pivotal to bringing an end to his wrongful incarceration.”

At trial, the state also relied on the testimony of discredited forensic analyst Joyce Gilchrist, who, as was revealed in a preliminary study conducted by the FBI in 2001, made outright errors or overstepped “the acceptable limits of forensic science” in at least five of her cases, leading to a comprehensive review of thousands of cases handled by her as a state forensic analyst between 1980 and 1993 by former Governor Frank Keating. Gilchrist performed basic serology (blood type testing) and claimed to have found four different blood types at the scene. While she acknowledged that Tall Bear didn’t match any of these blood types, her conclusion that there were four blood types called into question whether the blood was related to the crime (as there were only two assailants) and diminished the significance of Mr. Tall Bear’s exclusion from the blood types found at the scene.  The district attorney stood by the strength of the eyewitness identification and argued that while “the forensic evidence did not tell us very much … There’s evidence of several different blood types and enzyme activity.”

Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime and that Mr. Tall Bear’s physical therapist testified he had recently undergone surgery to remove gangrene from his leg, making “walking very difficult,” confining him to a wheelchair and rendering him unable to walk distances, kneel or stand for long periods of time, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life without parole, a sentenced later modified by the Court of Criminal Appeals to life imprisonment.

Take action: Help prevent wrongful convictions in Oklahoma and around the U.S.

Tall Bear, who always maintained his innocence, sought the help of the Innocence Project. With the consent of the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing on the bloody bags that police believed were used to stop bleeding and blood found on the inside out pockets of the victim’s pants. The testing identified DNA belonging to the one unknown male in blood found on two pieces of the collected bags and DNA belonging to another unknown male in the blood found on the victim’s pockets.  Tall Bear was excluded from all of the profiles. DNA testing also revealed that Gilchrist’s serology results were, once again, false; she had incorrectly attributed blood from an unknown male to the victim and from the victim to an unknown male. Aside from the victim, only two blood types were found on the crime scene evidence, consistent with the eyewitness’ account.

Based on these results, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to join our motion to vacate the conviction which was granted today and to dismiss the indictment against Tall Bear, allowing him to regain his freedom for the first time in 26 years and advancing the cause of justice.

Eyewitness misidentification is a leading contributor to DNA-based exonerations. District Attorney David Prater and Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill City have taken the lead in implementing evidence-based practices that reduce the risk of eyewitness misidentification in Oklahoma City. To prevent these types of injustice, other jurisdictions across the state should follow their lead.

Tall Bear was represented by Thompson and local attorney Douglas L. Parr.

Take action: Help prevent wrongful convictions in Oklahoma and around the U.S.

14 Comments

  1. Verna Francis

    What a travesty of justice! We are so famous for this type of injustice here in Oklahoma! I am thankful Mr. Tallbear was finally exonerated but what a shame he had to endure prison; and all those wasted years! My husband served 43 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was never exonerated but his sentence was finally commuted to 140 years and he discharged that sentence! If you live in Oklahoma or anywhere in the south be aware of your surroundings at all times…someone must pay for violent crimes and many times the prosecution doesn’t care WHO pays as long as they appear to be doing their job! Very tragic!

  2. Alan COOPER

    licensed TX attorney.

  3. Thomas Mininger

    At least the current Oklahoma City DA and Police Chief have a constructive attitude about wrongful convictions and I commend them for it.

    DAs have the power in our system. Their help in overturning wrongful convictions is vital. Unfortunately, the norm is for prosecutors to oppose DNA testing, forcing expensive court hearing after hearing. If a DNA test is eventually done and clears the convicted, prosecutors often double down in denial or vindictiveness, coming up with bizarre scenarios rather than admitting their mistakes. Even when a test IDs the real perpetrator who has a history of horrific crimes.

    Compare the behavior of the authorities in this case with those in the Phillip Barnett case, who are creating an alternate reality, rather than face the truth,
    https://www.innocenceproject.org/new-dna-test-results-exclude-philip-barnett-and-identify-alternate-suspect/

  4. jan mcfarland

    Best wishes to Mr. Tallbear and his family and friends! Two wrongs don’t make a right…and I am so happy that one more of way too many wrongly convicted has been cleared. It is far too easy to get convictions with little clear information often times coercing plea deals, too. I believe the number of wrongly convicted and those coerced to plea is way, way higher than we care to think about. God Bless you all.

  5. John Cross

    This is not a surprising turn of events in regards to wrongful convictions in the U. S. A great source on the causes of wrongful convictions is the book Wrongly Convicted: Perspective on Failed Justice, edited by Saundra D. Westervelt and John A. Humphrey.

  6. Donna Herring

    The US Justice Department has allowed a lot of things to slip without facts or proof sending innocent diversity people to lock up. This is not Justice. Justice have became untrue to some and no one seems to stop this way before it gets worse doing innocent people wrong everyday and year this happens. who will stand for right in laws and stop this behavior unacceptable in society that comes in all types of forms hurting people done no wrong.

    This is not human to treat people this way, when will it stop with respect to knowing this is not right. In God we trust!

  7. Arthur LeBeau

    I thank our Lord Jesus for Mr. Tallbear’s freedom. It is a shame and of great concern that we allow this and it is true also of my friend Jeffrey Weinhaus here in Missouri. freebulletinman.com -more of us need to become involved.

    My appreciation for those in law enforcement who helped secure his release, may Jesus bless them & their families. Art LeBeau, Villa Ridge, MO (Christian & Conservative)

  8. Margaret Coleman

    I am so glad for Mr Tallbear freedom after so many years of imprisonment,so much unjust in this world , sad to say my son is facing the same wrongfully conviction I have been fighting for the last six years for help so far no result , and he is a navy veteran in Mississippi we stand a slim chance for justice, can someone please help us he we’re taken away from his two sons that he we’re rasing his wife who is there mother is deceased may God Bless all who are going through this horrible and stressful time..

  9. Kim OBrien

    What this shows is either incompetentance or deliberate misconduct by the original examiner. Had the examiner not come under suspicion Mr. Tallbear would still be in prison because the uncertainty of the eyewitness never changed and the DNA before and now only reduces the number of suspects by one from which DNA had already ruled Mr Tailbear out. The cops and District Attorney should have never brought that type of a flimsy case, the judge should have thrown it out either before or after the verdict of a jury that was wrong assuming they and Judge heard about the witnesses uncertainty.

    Procedure concerning DNA, Drug and other forensic testing procedures should be changed such that the examiners.
    A: Can’t know the ‘correct’ answer to the questions before them before or after their test or examination.
    B: Sending through a number of know positives or negatives such that the examiners accuracy can be checked.

  10. Kathy Thornton

    While I am ever so greatful Mr. Tallbear has been exonerated from this crime, how do you get back 26 years of sitting behind bars, knowing you are innocent. There is no amount of money worth 26 years of incarceration. This is our Justice System in America. Eye witnesses are a joke

  11. SHAHEDA RIZVI

    Best wishes to an innocent man. May you and 1000 others be safe happy and meet the challenges of your new life. Grateful to the Innocents Project.

  12. Beverly Hovey

    So happy for Mr. Tallbear and his family. And in the state of Oklahoma, no less. Maybe there is hope for Daniel Holtzclaw.

  13. Charlie Cheng

    Best wishes for innocent prisoners!
    I was an innocent prisoners, I knew the pain from the miss-justice. I
    I finally chose to forgive those who manipulated the case against me for their own gains, of which had been document in my memoir, “FORGIVENESS: An Innocent Prisoner’s Testimony” (ISSN 978-1-5136-2440-2), as well as in my website, http://CharlieYCheng.com

  14. Virginia R

    If I can’t donate a $50 gift card, but can do a smaller amount, where would I send it so that Mr. Tallbear can get it?

Leave a Reply

Featured news