Updated at 11:33 a.m.
After enduring more than 30 years of punishment for a sexual assault he didn't commit, Kirk Odom was exonerated by DNA testing and declared innocent last summer. Yesterday, Odom's attorneys sued the U.S. Department of Justice to try to learn the identity of the likely true perpetrator.
Reviewing crime-scene DNA, prosecutors found a match in a law enforcement database. But the government has refused to tell Odom’s attorneys the identity of the person, saying only that the DNA belongs to a convicted sex offender, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The Justice Department denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Odom's lawyers at the D.C. Public Defender Service. According to the complaint, the department cited the privacy interest of the person identified. Odom's lawyers argued in the complaint that there was an "overriding public interest" in uncovering the results of the DNA analysis.
"From these records—which should include such information as the likely true perpetrator’s name, age, criminal history and physical appearance—the public has an opportunity to learn what went wrong in Mr. Odom’s case, to ensure that other men were not wrongfully convicted for other crimes committed by the same perpetrator and to avoid future tragedies like the one visited upon Mr. Odom," wrote Odom's attorneys, Sandra Levick and Sonam Henderson of the D.C. Public Defender Service.
Levick, chief of the public defender office's special litigation division, declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, also declined to comment.
Odom was arrested in 1981 in connection with a rape and burglary at a Capitol Hill apartment. Odom, who was 18 at the time, was charged after the victim identified him in a photo array and live lineup, both of which his lawyers argued were highly suggestive. Odom denied committing the crime, but a jury found him guilty.
The public defender office continued to fight for Odom's innocence, filing a series of unsuccessful appeals. Odom spent more than 22 years in jail and nearly a decade on parole, and was required to register as a sex offender.
In February 2011, Odom's lawyers filed a motion for DNA testing under the Innocence Protection Act. Testing of semen and hair from the attack proved Odom was innocent. As part of the government's testing, according to the complaint, the DNA profile of the semen was uploaded to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, a national database. At the time, the public defender office said prosecutors told them the government would share the results of any match in the database.
Once the government did identify a match, though, Odom's lawyers said prosecutors refused to share any details. The government did, however, join the motion to vacate Odom’s conviction.
"In this case, the identity of the convicted sex offender is necessary to evaluate the full extent of the errors, ineffective policies and governmental improprieties that resulted in Mr. Odom’s wrongful conviction, including whether there was evidence pointing to the convicted sex offender that the police and the USAODC ignored or discounted," Odom's lawyers argued in the complaint.
The statute of limitations ran out on the 1981 attack in 1987, according to a letter included with Odom's complaint, meaning whoever was identified couldn’t be charged with the crime. Odom's lawyers argued the person had "little, if any, cognizable privacy interest" because he wasn't at risk of a false accusation, given the certainty of DNA testing.
"Whatever interest the convicted sex offender has in concealing behind the statute of limitations his likely connection to the 1981 rape is far outweighed by the public interest in the records," they argued in the complaint.
The case is before U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins. No dates have been scheduled yet in the case.