NY man wrongly convicted of killing woman in 1988 is cleared by DNA evidence, will go free

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

DNA clears NY man wrongly convicted of 1988 murder

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A former truck driver who spent nearly 19 years behind bars for a 1988 slaying he didn’t commit walked free Wednesday after DNA testing exonerated him and instead pointed to a man who strangled a 4-year-old girl in 1994.

“I made it! Patience is a virtue,” exulted Frank Sterling, 46, who was convicted of murder based on a recanted confession and drew 25 years to life in prison.

State Judge Thomas Van Strydonck vacated the 1992 conviction after Monroe County prosecutors agreed with lawyers for the Innocence Project that DNA evidence obtained from the victim’s clothing excluded Sterling as the killer and instead implicated Mark Christie, who pleaded guilty to killing his neighbor in May 1994.

Prosecutors who interviewed Christie earlier this month said the former security guard confessed to killing Viola Manville on Nov. 29, 1988, and the Innocence Project said he revealed details only the killer would know. The 74-year-old grandmother was attacked as she walked along a rural trail near her home in Hilton, a Rochester suburb, and was bludgeoned to death.

Christie, a teenager at the time, was questioned soon after the slaying but denied involvement and was discounted as a suspect.

Sterling confessed to Manville’s killing during an all-night interrogation in July 1991, but later claimed he had slipped into a hypnotic state and parroted details police gave him about the crime.

After years of protesting his innocence, he said he felt anger and relief when told he was being freed.

“Yeah, I’m mad,” he said. “I’m glad he (Christie) finally did the right thing. Wish it was a little sooner.”

Sterling unsuccessfully sought a new trial in 1997 after four former friends of Christie testified the teen bragged about clubbing Manville with a BB gun on his walk to Hilton High School.

Christie, now 36, was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1997 for strangling Kali Ann Poulton in 1994 and hiding her body for two years before he finally blurted out the truth to his new bride. The girl had vanished while riding a tricycle outside her home in a suburban Rochester town house complex.

Christie took part in a neighborhood search for Kali that spring night after disposing of the body.

Her disappearance touched off a nationwide search until summer 1996, when Christie told his wife he had strangled the girl with a pair of socks and submerged her body in a huge water tank at a factory where he worked. His wife called the police, and Christie led them to the body.

The Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to clear people wrongfully convicted of crimes, took up Sterling’s case in 2004.

“There’s no question that in this case the police officers had tunnel vision, and they latched onto Frank three years after the fact, even though his confession didn’t make sense, even though there was no other evidence to suggest he did it,” said the group’s co-director, Peter Neufeld.

“Frank had no (criminal) record at all. He can never be made whole, but at least the state should take some responsibility and give him some measure of compensation.”

A state judge who turned down Sterling’s request for a new trial in 1997 said “only Sterling gave an account of the crime that is consistent with the physical evidence.” He sided with prosecutors who argued that Sterling had a strong motive because he believed his brother was wrongfully convicted of attempting to rape Manville in 1985.

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