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Ronnie Lee Rhodes was convicted of murder in Wichita in 1981. He has maintained his innocence for three decades. To try to prove his claims, he filed a motion for DNA testing in April 2008, but evidence that once existed now can't be found. An investigation by The Wichita Eagle and the Washburn School of Law shows the case illustrates flaws in a system that's supposed to protect the innocent.


Is convicted murderer really a victim?

Ronnie Rhodes has spent 30 years in a Kansas prison for a murder he says he didn't commit. His case remained forgotten until last year, when it caught the attention of students in a class at Washburn law school studying wrongful convictions.

To them, Rhodes' conviction illustrates many of the problems found in hundreds of cases where inmates were later proven innocent through DNA — ambiguous eyewitness testimony, ineffective defense and questionable evidence.

How innocent people end up behind bars

The U.S. criminal justice system is built on a code of "better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."

Now, it seems, 266 innocent people aren't enough to prompt many states, including Kansas, to enact reforms that could limit the possibility of putting the wrong people behind bars.

Dallas DA established unit to look into old cases

On his second day as Dallas County District Attorney, Craig Watkins received a motion needing his signature.

It was to destroy old evidence.

"I didn't sign it," Watkins said.

DNA, other samples can be destroyed

Ronnie Rhodes wondered why he couldn't seek legal relief if evidence in his 30-year-old murder case was destroyed without a court order.

Currently, 33 states require evidence in the most serious crimes to be maintained at least as long as a convicted person remains in prison.

Kansas is not one of them.


Ronald Lee "Ronnie" Rhodes: Convicted of murder in 1981 at age 26. Rhodes worked for a trash service at the time and lived at 2627 E Mossman. He has always denied committing the crime. Now 56, he is serving a life sentence at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

Cleother Burrell: Died of 20 stab wounds at about 5 p.m. Feb. 2, 1981 in the apartment complex at 630 N. Topeka. Burrell was apparently homeless and had been staying in Apt. 14 for at least two days prior to Feb. 2. He was 45.

Bruce Terry Elliott: Claimed to be an eyewitness to Burrell's killing. The 40-year-old rented Apt. 14 and said he allowed people to stay at his apartment, including Eddie Field and his girlfriend "Goldie." Elliott said he allowed Burrell to stay there because he had no place to live. Elliott has blood on his clothes and hands when police interviewed him the night of Burrell's death. Elliott said he worked at Trinity Marketing Service, 2340 N. Broadway. He said he paid his bills through a trust fund set up by his father at Fourth National Bank (now Bank of America).

Learn more about the people involved in this story.

Criminal justice reform legislation


PART ONE: After decades, case spurs questions

PART TWO: Rhodes tells what he did Feb. 2, 1981

PART THREE: The case under scrutiny

PART FOUR: ‘He would never have lied’

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