Christopher Dunn has spent most of his life behind bars in a Missouri prison, but familiarity with his circumstances has not lessened the pain Dunn said comes with being incarcerated.
“Life in prison is a living hell,”The 50-year old told Inside Edition Digital. “Every day you’ve got to go through something totally different.”
Dunn has been stabbed, and suffered three heart attacks in prison. These incidents have threatened Dunn’s chances of ever being free. Dunn fights for his freedom, despite being sentenced for life without parole and 90 years for 1990 murder. And that’s because, he says, he is innocent.
He and his supporters were rejoicing at the prospect of being freed. However, a circuit court judge decided that the evidence in Dunn’s case, which included testimony from recanted witnesses, was not sufficient to convict Dunn. Though the judge said Dunn had legally proven he is innocent under what’s considered a “freestanding claim of innocence,” Missouri law is only clear in death penalty cases and not others – and Dunn was not sentenced to death.
“If innocence doesn’t matter, then guilt doesn’t matter, then why do we have loss?” said Dunn’s wife, Kira Dunn. “What’s the point of the legal system?”
Dunn was not discouraged and is currently working to convince a circuit lawyer to take Dunn’s case, as well as a judge, of his innocence.
On May 18, 1990, 14-year-old Recco Rogers was shot to death while sitting on a porch in his and Dunn’s St. Louis neighborhood. At the time of Rogers’ killing, Dunn said he was home on the phone with a friend who was giving birth at a nearby hospital. Dunn said he had nothing to do with Rogers’ murder and that he didn’t know Rogers personally.
“Never knew him at all,”Dunn stated. “I never knew his family at all. All I knew was that his family moved into my neighborhood.”
Police arrested Dunn the next day.
“His public defender spent maybe a total of 20 minutes with him before she represented him at trial,” Kira Dunn said.
During Dunn’s trial, a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old boy claimed Dunn shot at them while sitting on the porch around midnight. They have since admitted to lying because they didn’t like Dunn and have recanted their stories.
Because it was dark outside at the time, neither witness could see who pulled the trigger. There was no physical evidence linking Dunn to the shooting.
Dunn was convicted.
“He was convicted in 45 minutes of jury deliberation and that was it. I mean, he was an 18-year-old. He was given life without parole plus 90 years,” Kira Dunn said. “He was initially offered 10 to plead out and he said, ‘No way. I didn’t do this. I don’t want these people to think I did this. I don’t want these parents to think I took their child from them. I would never do that.’ Refused it and they really threw the book at him.”
Dunn was sentenced in 1991 to life imprisonment without parole and 90 years.
“It was a two-day trial with jury selection, so really it was opening, witness statement, witness testimony, closing, one day, really it was a one-day trial,”Inside Edition Digital spoke with Justin Bonus, an attorney. ”And unfortunately it’s an all too familiar reality for poor, especially Black, men in this country. It’s quite astounding.”
Dunn’s prison is a “constant battlefield.”
“There’s landmines everywhere,”He said. ”You don’t know where to walk, you’re walking on eggshells in prison… You always have to watch your back in prison, make sure nobody try to stab you in the neck or hit you in your gut. Just by looking at someone, you can set them off. Just by looking at them. So, you’ve got to be careful with what you’re doing, what you’re saying, how you look, how you present yourself to them.”
Dunn met his wife while she was volunteering as a writer for Justice Denied in 1999. They fell in love through a series of letters and phone calls. They got engaged in 2007 after which they were married in 2014.
“It’s untraditional, definitely. It’s different. It’s challenging,” Kira Dunn said. “I feel that if we can make it through these days like this, we can make it through anything. It’s lonely. It’s sad. We kind of have our little life in 15-minute increments because that’s what the correctional phone system allows.”
Chris Dunn and Kira can only hug for two seconds when they are in person. They’re not permitted to kiss for any longer than that as well.
“That’s what we have physically, but mentally and emotionally, we have much more,”She said.
Kira Dunn fights for the release her husband.
Kira Dunn, who organized a rally in St. Louis recently, told her supporters: “My husband’s health isn’t good, and we just don’t know how much time we have.
“He’s served almost 32 years for something he didn’t do, and we just don’t know how much time we have to wait for the wheels of justice to turn,”She went on. “It’s so slow.”
Dunn saw a chance at freedom come and go last August, when the Missouri Supreme Court refused a petition to hear his case.
In 2020, a 25th Circuit judge agreed that evidence of Dunn’s guilt was lacking, but that judge stopped short of freeing Dunn, citing a precent set by a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in 2016, in the case of Lincoln vs. Cassady. In that case, the Western District Court of Appeals determined that only death row prisoners can make a “freestanding”Habeas corpus cases: claim of actual innocence
“To be honest with you, I felt that pain,” Dunn said of hearing the judge’s reasoning for not granting him freedom. “To hear that man say, with the evidence specifically before this court, there is no jury that can find him guilty. And it is apparent before this court that Christopher now was convicted based on the testimony of a liar.”
Justin Bonus, Attorney, is critical of Dunn’s inability to be released from jail owing to a technicality.
“Most people think that guys get out of jail on a technicality, this guy is being held in prison off of procedure, a technicality,”He said. “That’s mind-blowing. I have seen judges say pretty crazy things, but never put it in paper. I’ve never seen a judge say, ‘there’s no reasonable juror that would convict this man.’ No, I have not seen it on paper in a decision, no.”
He and attorney Kent Gipson are working to try to secure Dunn’s freedom.
“His best shot, I believe, is to get the prosecutor in Saint Louis City to invoke the new law that gives her the right to file a motion to allow someone that she thinks is innocent to prove it, so that’s what we’re focusing on right now,”Gipson stated.
Dunn’s family hopes Kimberly Gardner, the circuit attorney for St. Louis, will bring his case before a judge.
“Right now, we have a new mechanism that prosecutors are able to file motions to have wrongful convictions reviewed, but it’s like a mini trial. There’s still a process where that is impeded by the Attorney General. And there’s a process that puts the onerous burden, not only on the state, but of the defendant,”She said.
Gardner said she is reviewing Dunn’s case.
“I think that is an issue in Missouri where actual innocence is only for individuals on death row. Well, I believe life without is a death sentence and others share that sentiment,”She said. “But our Missouri law, actual innocence is only for people on death row.”
If Gardner were to take up Dunn’s cause, she would then have the challenge of finding witnesses from the case.
“You have to find witnesses from cases where people 30 years ago were in different situations. So, there’s a lot of work that goes into these cases,”She said. “We have to make sure if this is the mechanism, that as a prosecutor, we do a thorough investigation, as well as a thorough presentation of the facts and evidence that we have found in these cases where this individual is languishing in prison wrongfully convicted.”
Gardner’s office has been looking into Dunn’s case since 2021.
“We’ll continue to look at that case with our investigators, as well as working with Chris Dunn’s defense counsel, because he has a right,”She said. “And we actually have a right to one, evaluate the case in terms of this new mechanism.”
While the case is being reviewed, the Dunns must remain cautiously optimistic.
“Well, we’re very hopeful. And yet at the same time, we’re afraid to be hopeful because our hopes have been up quite a few times, and they’ve been dashed quite a few times,” Kira Dunn said. “And after a while, you build up that protective wall around, and you’re afraid to get too excited, or too happy, or too hopeful about anything in case it falls through yet again.”
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who has the power to fully pardon Dunn, declined Inside Edition Digital’s request for an interview and did not answer questions sent through email.
Parson spoke through his spokesperson. “Federal law could provide a good model for the kinds of procedural safeguards that protect against endless post-conviction litigation that ultimately can undermine the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
A spokesperson for Missouri Supreme Court stated that they cannot speculate on whether a court will overrule any previous court rulings in the future or the grounds upon which it might, since it is a legislative matter.
The Missouri House of Representatives directed Inside Edition Digital’s request for comment to two legislators. One lawmaker did not respond to Inside Edition Digital’s request for comment, but through his spokesperson, Sen. Brian Williams said he helped pass the bill that is making it possible for Gardner to take up Dunn’s case. When asked about the possibility of overturning 2016’s Lincoln vs. Cassady, Williams said, “given recent court rulings, the only avenue for a change in Missouri law is to pass new legislation.”
Williams stated that Senate Bill 1201 was filed this year to allow anyone to make a claim of actual innocence free of charge in any postconviction proceeding to challenge the validity of the judgment.
A court could repeal or modify a judgment when it finds clear and convincing evidence that weakens confidence in the judge. Williams also introduced a bill to expand the grounds under which an individual wrongfully imprisoned may seek damages from the government.
The 2022 legislative sessions ends May 13.
Dunn’s loved ones and friends can wait.
“It’s just a little scary because Chris has now had three heart attacks. On one of those times, he flatlined and had to be shocked back, and his health just is fragile right now, and we don’t know how much time we have to wait,” Kira Dunn said.
“We think the good intentions are definitely there and we appreciate that. We’re so grateful, really, but we don’t know how much time we have.”
She said that two lives were lost in the spring of 1990.
“I think this gets lost sometimes. There’s a victim at the center of all this,”She said. “There is a young man who was only 14 years old who had his life taken from him. There’s a family who never got to see that child grow up, never got to be grandparents, never got to be aunties and uncles to the kids he may have had. Who knows what that child would’ve done with their life? Who knows what he would’ve become? And we never want to forget that. But that child hasn’t seen justice and Chris hasn’t seen justice.
“And so when I look back at that night in 1990, I feel like two lives were lost that night,”She went on.
“One was quick and the other is a slow, slow, slow, long death and it’s still going on day by day.”
Not a day has gone by that Dunn hasn’t insisted he is innocent, and he’s willing to prove it, should authorities be willing to listen.
“I’ve never jumped anyone, stabbed anyone, raped anyone, or done anything to anyone to justify what they’re doing to me. I just need the support of society to influence the Circuit Attorney of the City of St. Louis as well as the Attorney General of Missouri to reconsider,”He said. “To give me a new trial. If anything. If you don’t want to let me go, give me a new trial.
“That’s all I’m asking for, is a chance now to have what I didn’t have 32 years ago.”