Missouri man recalls being wrongly convicted of brutal murder in ‘The Real Killer’ podcast: ‘I lost all hope’

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After spending 36 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Rodney Lincoln is now sharing his story.

The 77-year-old’s wrongful conviction has been analyzed in a true-crime podcast from AYR Media and iHeartMedia, “The Real Killer,” hosted by Daytime Emmy-nominated producer and writer Leah Rothman. The series investigates one of the most gruesome crimes in Missouri history, and it features new interviews with those closely connected to the case.

“I appreciated the podcast’s very detailed, in-depth research,” Lincoln told Fox News Digital on why he was compelled to speak out. “Unlike a lot of other podcasts, I found no bias here.” 

The case of Rodney Lincoln is the subject of a true-crime podcast, "The Real Killer."

The case of Rodney Lincoln is the subject of a true-crime podcast, “The Real Killer.”
(iHeartPodcast )

In 1982, JoAnn Tate was fatally stabbed in her St. Louis home. Her two young daughters, 4-year-old Renee and 7-year-old Melissa DeBoer, were also assaulted. Their uncle found them the next day at the property, which was covered in blood, St. Louis Public Radio reported.

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According to the outlet, the hasty, emotion-fueled investigation was mostly based on the eyewitness testimony of a traumatized DeBoer, as well as inconclusive evidence. Lincoln professed his innocence.

“I wasn’t really her boyfriend,” Lincoln said of his brief relationship with Tate. “We dated a few times. That relationship was strictly sexual. I vaguely remembered the last time I saw her. But I do remember that she was a very kind person. She was a loving mother, that was certain. I just couldn’t believe what had happened at the time. I still find it hard to believe. But I also couldn’t figure out how I was chosen. For a while, I lost all hope.”

JoAnn Tate, a mother of two girls, was killed in 1982.

JoAnn Tate, a mother of two girls, was killed in 1982.
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

Lincoln, who was 37 at the time of Tate’s murder, was sentenced to life in prison. He said the first 10 years behind bars were “the worst.”

“I came in with a crime that involved killing a woman and injuring children,” Lincoln said. “I was immediately tagged as a child molester. I felt like an outcast from day one. I had to be very careful about whom I associated with. I was constantly looking over my shoulder. I tried so hard to avoid any conflicts whatsoever. It was kind of like being in a crowded room, but you’re all by yourself. It was very hard. It was after those first 10 difficult years when I finally established myself.”

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Lincoln noted that it was his family that kept him going on days when he truly felt like giving up. He remained in prison despite key pieces of his conviction falling apart. 

Rodney Lincoln said he briefly dated JoAnn Tate before her tragic death.

Rodney Lincoln said he briefly dated JoAnn Tate before her tragic death.
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

“I just thought I’m here, I’m going to stay here and there’s nothing I can do to change that,” Lincoln lamented. “My oldest daughter got a support group started for me. People started writing letters, telling me to keep my head up and stay strong. That helped a great deal. I felt like there was somebody out there that really cared. And my family was always behind me. Because of that support, I knew I couldn’t give up.”

Lincoln’s daughter Kay was determined to prove her father’s innocence. After putting together transcripts and police reports, she sought help from Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit that takes on cases involving people suspected of being wrongly convicted. The group took Lincoln’s case in 2004 and fought for DNA testing.

It was six more years before they were allowed to perform the testing, which showed Lincoln couldn’t be tied to the scene with any DNA evidence. However, a judge ruled that the lack of DNA evidence didn’t rule Lincoln out of the case. 

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Kay Lincoln, Rodney Lincoln's daughter, was determined to prove her father's innocence.

Kay Lincoln, Rodney Lincoln’s daughter, was determined to prove her father’s innocence.
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

Lincoln remained in prison.

It was 2015 when the syndicated TV show “Crime Watch Daily” questioned whether serial killer Tommy Sells, who once lived in St. Louis, could have committed the murder. DeBoer watched the episode and realized it was all a mistake.

According to St. Louis Public Radio, DeBoer reached out to Kay in tears. She recanted her accusation 33 years later. DeBoer later asked Missouri’s governor to free the man who had spent decades serving time for her mother’s death.

A true-crime show about JoAnn Tate's murder would change Rodney Lincoln's fate.

A true-crime show about JoAnn Tate’s murder would change Rodney Lincoln’s fate.
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

“I made a mistake, and I am heartbroken,” DeBoer wrote in an application for a pardon or executive commutation to Gov. Jay Nixon. “I have incredible guilt for my role. I am asking you to release Rodney Lincoln so that I may have peace. It is time for this tragedy to end.”

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DeBoer said her testimony incriminating Lincoln at his trial was rehearsed. She said an investigator coaxed her into identifying Lincoln as the killer by showing her a photograph of Lincoln and another of a DeBoer relative. He said that the “bad man” who committed the attack was one of them.

“I experienced every human emotion in one day when I heard the news,” said Lincoln. “I had never felt so much gratitude.”

Rodney Lincoln (right) with his daughter Kay Lincoln (left) and Melissa DeBoer (center).

Rodney Lincoln (right) with his daughter Kay Lincoln (left) and Melissa DeBoer (center).
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

In 2018, Lincoln’s sentence was commuted by Gov. Eric Greitens on his last day in office. According to Greitens, Lincoln had served time for “a crime he did not commit” and was “wrongly convicted.”

“My first day of freedom was joyful, to say the least,” Lincoln recalled. “I walked out of that prison with my two daughters and my grandson. It just seemed like even the air outside was different. And then, of course, on the way home, we had to stop at Steak ’n Shake. I ordered some type of steak, and I couldn’t even eat any of it. I was just so excited. I felt no hunger whatsoever. I just wanted to savor every moment that I was free.”

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Lincoln said he “never had to forgive” DeBoer, 47, because he “never blamed her.”

Melissa DeBoer now believes that Tommy Lynn Sells was the one who killed her mother JoAnn Tate (pictured here).

Melissa DeBoer now believes that Tommy Lynn Sells was the one who killed her mother JoAnn Tate (pictured here).
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

“I always felt that this was a 7-year-old little girl who went through living hell,” he said. “She was then manipulated and coerced. I never placed any blame on Melissa. My blame was aimed at the police mainly. And when Melissa came to believe that it wasn’t me, she didn’t hesitate to come forward and tell everyone that she made a mistake. To me, that takes a lot of courage.”

Today, Lincoln said he sees DeBoer as one of his daughters. They frequently speak on Facebook and over the phone. And whenever there’s an opportunity, they’ll get together in person. Life, he said, is nothing short of “magnificent,” one that is filled with love and friendship.

Tate’s actual killer remains unknown. Sells, who was executed in 2014 in Texas for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old girl in 1999, had claimed to have committed as many as 70 killings across the country. DeBoer’s sister died in 2008, leaving DeBoer as the only remaining witness to the crimes.

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Rodney Lincoln is now happily surrounded by family.

Rodney Lincoln is now happily surrounded by family.
(Lincoln Family, Clenney Family, Leah Rothman)

Lincoln said he’s revisiting the tragedy now in hopes of shedding light on the problems plaguing the criminal justice system.

“I will always be grateful that I had support from my family and friends while I was in prison,” he said. “They gave me a new appreciation for people. For years, I always felt that few people cared. But I was proven wrong. Whenever I felt down, they always raised me back up. But my message is, be careful. This could happen to you.”

The season finale of “The Real Killer” is Feb. 17. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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