By Phoebe Zerwick
GREENVILLE - On the Sunday before her death, Arlene Lincoln and her son, Duffy, watched N.C. State play Connecticut in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Duffy Lincoln left about 4:30, after State had lost. His sister, Leslie, stopped by later. She was the last person known to have seen Arlene Lincoln alive.
The next night, March 18, 2002, Duffy Lincoln found his mother's body on the floor by the bed. There was a deep stab wound in her neck. She was 74.
Within a week, the police were focused on Leslie Lincoln as the suspect. They arrested her six months later with information from confidential informants. The clincher came in July 2003, more than a year after the crime, when a DNA report came back. A bloodstain on her mother's bedsheets matched Leslie's DNA.
The evidence seemed to seal the case - even for those who wanted to believe that she was innocent.
"When it first came back ... I really was thinking, 'She must have done this,'" said Sharla Lincoln, Leslie Lincoln's sister-in-law. "You think something coming out of the state lab is going to be right. Knowing how much DNA means to people now, if the DNA says you did it, then you did it."
Except the lab was wrong.
The test tubes holding the DNA samples had been mislabeled. The evidence actually showed that the blood on Arlene Lincoln's bed was her own.
Today, Duffy Lincoln believes that police focused on his sister as the prime suspect for the simple reason that she was the last to see their mother alive. What he doesn't understand is why prosecutors decided to charge Leslie Lincoln with murder and try her for her life, and why, despite a lack of evidence, they continue to keep her locked up without bail.
The police and prosecutors declined to comment on almost anything having to do with the case, but a Winston-Salem Journal review of search warrants and affidavits shows that nothing seized from Leslie Lincoln or her home has provided any physical link to her mother's death.
In addition, interviews with some of the confidential informants police relied on describe interrogation methods that include implicit threats, among other tactics, designed to get the witnesses to support the police theory - that Leslie Lincoln killed her mother.
In motions filed last week, Lincoln's attorneys alleged that the state has no physical evidence, eyewitnesses or confession tying Lincoln to her mother's death. Instead, the motions allege, the state is relying on jailhouse informants to make a case against her, with a promise to at least one informant to drop felony charges in exchange for testimony.
When it learned of its mistake on the DNA test, the State Bureau of Investigation removed the lab technician on the case from her duties. The prosecutor later took the death penalty off the table.
Leslie Lincoln, 50, remains in the Pitt County Detention Center. Her trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 12.
Leslie Lincoln is the youngest of Arlene and Abe Lincoln's three children. Duffy, the eldest, is a high-school guidance counselor. The middle son, Howard, died in a car accident. Leslie married an electrician in 1983. When the marriage ended in 1997, she moved in with her mother until her divorce was settled and she could afford her own place.
By 2002, she had her life back on track. She had found a job as the administrator at The Meadows at Red Oak rest home, not far from her mother's condo. She bought a house and kept her three horses nearby. She began dating Richard "Max" Manning, the maintenance man at the rest home.
Leslie Lincoln spent the afternoon of Sunday, March 17, running errands. She bought a bluegrass CD at Circuit City before dropping in to see her mother. According to a motion filed by her attorneys, she left her mother's about 7:30 p.m. On her way home, she bought dog food at Wal-Mart. Her lawyer filed receipts with the court as proof of her movements.
Arlene Lincoln led an active life growing flowers in her front yard, keeping a garden at the First Freewill Baptist Church, and shopping for bargains at estate auctions. So that Monday, when neighbors noticed that she hadn't been out working in her yard or even picked up her newspaper from the walkway, one of them called Duffy Lincoln, and he drove over.
"I went down the hall to her bedroom and when I got to her bedroom I saw her on the floor," he said.
He called 911. Rescue workers arrived first. By the time they confirmed that she was dead, they had trampled through the crime scene, Lincoln said.
His mother was wearing a pair of blue slacks and a pink pullover. There were three footprints in the blood by her body. The top drawer of her dresser was on the floor. Her pocketbook, which she normally kept in the closet by the front door, lay on the seat of the living-room couch. Along the couch's top edge lay three $1 bills. Her glasses were on the floor by the couch.
Later, Duffy Lincoln realized that the paisley bedspread was missing from her bed. So was a concrete squirrel she kept on the stoop by the front door. Police later learned that her credit card was missing. Someone had used it at 3 a.m. Monday to buy gas at a nearby convenience store.
Police took various items from the condominium for testing, including the bloodstained sheets, a crumpled paper towel, a cutting from the couch cushion and the dollar bills. They let Duffy Lincoln take his mother's pocketbook home. Later they asked ask him to return it for testing.
Leslie Lincoln met her brother at their mother's home that night. According to a defense motion, later in the week the police checked Duffy and Leslie Lincoln for wounds and found none.
Duffy Lincoln's wife, Sharla, remembers the day, a week after her mother-in-law's death, when Leslie Lincoln realized that she was the prime suspect.
"They think I killed Mama," Leslie Lincoln told Sharla Lincoln shortly after Leslie's four-hour interview with police. "They were freaking me out. The investigator was telling me the guilt was going to kill me. They got me so paranoid, I think I need to throw all the knives in the pond."
Greenville police arrested Leslie Lincoln on Sept. 19, 2002, and the district attorney soon filed notice that he would seek the death penalty.
Mistaken lab report
The strongest evidence linking the daughter to her mother's murder was the most irrefutable evidence there is in a criminal prosecution - a DNA test tying the defendant to the crime.
According to a July 2003 lab report by the State Bureau of Investigation, DNA extracted from bloodstains on the bedsheets in the mother's bedroom and from a couch cushion matched Leslie's DNA.
Lincoln's attorney, Ernest "Buddy" Conner, didn't believe the testing. As he explained to her family, she didn't have any wounds after the murder that would have bled on her mother's bedsheets or couch. On top of that, she had passed a polygraph exam that Conner arranged in November 2002 with a retired polygraph operator from the SBI.
By late 2004, Conner was asking the court to pay for the evidence to be retested by a private laboratory. District Attorney Clark Everett didn't object, and he also asked the SBI to retest the evidence itself. In March, Brenda Bissette, a DNA analyst who has since retired, called Everett to let him know that her first round of testing was wrong.
Later in March, LabCorp. in Research Triangle Park retested the bloody sheet and cushion previously tested by the SBI. The lab also tested a bloody paper towel. The lab was unable to extract a DNA profile from the couch cushion. The other evidence all matched Arlene Lincoln's DNA.
The state crime lab did not make any public announcement of its mistake, but it continued to work the case. The lab tested additional evidence in May, looking for blood and DNA. According to a May 17 report, the lab found no human blood on any of the knives the police seized from Leslie Lincoln's house or truck. DNA testing also failed to turn up a match between Leslie Lincoln and any of the bloodstained evidence taken from her mother's house. The blood all matched her mother's DNA.
Conner has filed motions asking the state crime lab to explain the mistake. Until the lab provides an explanation, his motion says, its work is suspect. A lawyer's group also has filed a complaint about Lincoln's case with the accrediting agency for crime laboratories.
"Leslie is innocent," Conner said. "And the SBI made a mistake in this case. Is that a coincidence? I don't know. Leslie is certainly entitled to an answer to that question."
In an interview this month, SBI officials said that Bissette mislabeled the test tubes she used to extract DNA from the blood samples, labeling Leslie Lincoln's DNA as her mother's and Arlene Lincoln's as her daughter's.
"From then on, all her interpretations were flawed," said Michael Budzynski, the special agent over the lab's DNA section. "She is very aware of what she did. She is aware of the gravity of the situation. It eats at people."
The SBI removed Bissette from her laboratory duties. She retired May 1, 2005. She did not return a telephone message left with a relative.
The SBI is reviewing its procedures in the wake of Bissette's mistake, but it has yet to make any changes, Budzynski said.
He said he also is reviewing the files for all 50 DNA cases that Bissette analyzed since 2002. He said he does not intend, however, to redo the analyses. The SBI also said it would redo DNA testing in any case that Bissette handled, if requested by the prosecuting or defense attorney. But the SBI has not sent out any formal notice to lawyers about the error.
Legal experts say that a mistake of such magnitude, especially in a capital-murder case, calls for a clear and prompt explanation from the SBI. It should have immediately explained what happened to reassure the public, and lay out what it intends to do to prevent such mistakes from happening again, they said.
The Journal, in April, requested public records about laboratory errors. The SBI's response did not disclose the error. SBI Director Robin Pendergraft said that must have been an oversight.
William Thompson, a professor of criminology and a DNA expert at the University of California at Irvine, said that labeling mistakes have happened at other laboratories.
"The test of whether a lab is doing adequate work isn't whether they make errors. It's how they respond when errors come to light," he said. "You can't expect a lab to be error-free. You can expect a good lab to be open about what they are doing."
Beyond the discredited DNA report, the police, the district attorney and Lincoln's attorneys declined to discuss the evidence. But affidavits by police Detective Ricky Best, filed to obtain search warrants for Lincoln's house and pickup truck, reveal his reliance on confidential informants to make a case.
Best said in the affidavits that he had two informants who heard Lincoln say that she may have killed her mother during an argument over her boyfriend, and a third who heard her say she may have killed her mother. A fourth informant told Best about throwing her hunting knife in the pond. Sharla Lincoln believes that she is the informant on that piece of information, though she does not believe that her sister-in-law said it as an admission of guilt.
"She argued with her mother and she thinks she killed her mother," Best wrote in one of the affidavits, quoting one of his informants. "She told (confidential informant A) that she was going to throw her knife into a farm pond before the police search for it because there may be evidence on the knife to link her to her mother's death."
Police seized a long list of items from Leslie's house, including a hunting knife, a penknife, a journal, a 2002 calendar and carpet samples. They also searched her blue pickup truck, finding a bottle of anti-anxiety medicine, a bottle of a painkiller called oxycodone prescribed in her name, another knife, a checkbook, $234 in cash and an insurance card. Police also searched the pond near her house, but according to the search warrant, found nothing
Police declined to identify their confidential sources, but former rest-home employees said that Best relied on, and pressed, several of them for information.
Patsy Jefferson worked nights at the rest home, but transferred to a day-shift job after Best persuaded her to help with the investigation, she said.
Jefferson said that Lincoln's obsessive interest in Manning, even after her mother's death, made her suspicious of her boss. She remembered, too, she said, how Leslie Lincoln had once referred to her mother as "the bitch," and thought it strange that Lincoln bragged about the diamond ring she wore that had belonged to her mother.
"She would never give it to me, but look, I got it anyway," Jefferson recalled Lincoln telling her one day while they were taking a cigarette break together.
Jefferson said that Best also told her that a word had been written in blood at the crime scene, leading her to believe that the killer had written "bitch" somewhere on the body.
"He just said, 'Think of a word she liked to say a lot,'" Jefferson recalled. "It put a chill on me, and this was in the summertime."
Nothing in the court record mentions anything written in blood at the crime scene. Dr. Paul Spence, the medical examiner, examined the body at the scene. His report notes three footprints but says nothing about any words written in blood.
"I didn't find any such word written on her," Spence said this month. "It would have been pretty obvious."
After she switched to the day job, Jefferson said she never learned anything concrete linking Leslie Lincoln to her mother's death.
Catherine McCabe, who also worked with Lincoln at the rest home, said that she was another of Best's confidential informants.
She said she went to Lincoln's home several times after the murder to comfort her. One afternoon in late August or early September, McCabe said, she and another woman from the rest home visited Lincoln. She said that Lincoln was upset about the way the investigation into her mother's death had focused on her.
"She was basically (saying) that police were hounding her, and she couldn't understand why they were focusing on her and not trying to look at anyone else," McCabe said.
"I think that was the point where she made the statement that maybe she had killed her mother and just blocked it out."
Steve Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University who has studied police interrogative methods, said that Lincoln's statement indicates that she was under stress from the interrogation.
"The daughter was telling people she began to think maybe she committed this crime in a blackout," he said. "That suggests to me that she was interrogated by the police and she was beginning to doubt her memory. "
McCabe said she didn't take Lincoln's statement as an admission of guilt, but several days later, Best came to the rest home and asked to speak with her.
He took McCabe to the police department and asked her about her conversations with Leslie Lincoln. McCabe said that Best told her that he had already heard about the ''blocking it out'' statement from other sources, and asked her to repeat what she had heard.
McCabe said she felt pressured to cooperate with Best out of fear of losing her job.
"If she (LeslieLincoln) went through anything like what I went through when I was down there talking to them, I can see how she would not know what to think. It is a very intense experience to be part of an investigation, and you have someone yelling at you...."
She said that Best told her that he had found a knife at Lincoln's house that he believed to be the murder weapon, and he suggested that Lincoln had found the diamond ring in the top dresser drawer of her mother's room.
Since then, McCabe has learned that Duffy Lincoln gave his sister the diamond ring after their mother's death. She said she also learned that the knife that Best referred to had been seized from Leslie's truck. McCabe said she remembered that knife because Leslie Lincoln used it at work to cut tennis balls. The rest home put those cut tennis balls on the bottom of residents' walking aids for better traction.
"I know a lot of things have gotten misconstrued, including a lot of things that I said," McCabe said.
The police declined to discuss any of the allegations about Best's tactics. Best, who is now retired from the Greenville Police Department, did not return messages left for him.
Little ray of light
After his sister's arrest, Duffy Lincoln took over her affairs. He said he tried to keep up with her house payments and her three horses, but in a year, the $10,000 she had in savings ran out, and he was forced to sell the horses and let the bank foreclose on the house.
"Everything she worked for is gone," he said.
Lincoln and his niece, Lyn Roman, visit Leslie Lincoln in jail every Sunday He said that most weeks his sister is optimistic. She has learned to get along in jail. She reads mysteries and plays cards with the other women. The Pitt County Detention Center doesn't allow its inmates in maximum custody outside, so she hasn't been outdoors, except for court appearances, since the day she was arrested.
One week in July when the temperature in Greenville reached 102 degrees, Sharla Lincoln said she spoke with her sister-in-law by phone.
"Hey, there, what's up?" Leslie Lincoln asked.
"I'm trying to stay cool and out of the sun," Sharla Lincoln replied.
"That's funny," Leslie Lincoln said. "I've got this little ray of light coming through the window. I'm standing in it, and I'm trying to stay in it as long as it's here."
Lincoln is scheduled to go on trial next month. Everett has declined to say why he took the death penalty off the table.
Court records hint at evidence that the state may present and at possible motives. Drugs appear to be one motive considered by police.
After the killing, Duffy Lincoln told police that the OxyContin that his mother took for shingles was missing. OxyContin is a powerful painkiller, with a high street value. Eventually, he and his wife found his mother's OxyContin hidden away in a kitchen cabinet, they said. They said they left a message with the police department that they had found the OxyContin. In spite of that, the request for a search warrant of Leslie Lincoln's house and truck several weeks later mentions the missing OxyContin.
According to motions filed by Lincoln's attorneys, the state's case relies on statements by women who were in jail with her. One motion asks the court to prohibit testimony from such witnesses, and alleges that investigators have shown photos of the crime scene to potential witnesses and told them facts about the case that could distort their testimony. Lincoln's attorneys also allege that the district attorney's office has made a deal with at least one informant, and they asked that the state disclose any deals it makes with witnesses. Everett declined to say whether he would be using jailhouse informants.
Another defense motion alleges that police failed to investigate other leads, including one about a man seen around Arlene Lincoln's home on the Sunday afternoon of the State-UConn game and another regarding noises heard in her condo about 6 a.m.Monday.
The police theories that Duffy Lincoln is aware of have all been discredited in his mind. The missing OxyContin was found. He was the person who gave Leslie Lincoln their mother's diamond ring. And, most important, his sister's DNA was not on his mother's bloodstained sheets.
Duffy Lincoln said he always cooperated with the police in the belief that the investigation would move away from his sister.
"Every time I interviewed with them it seemed it always went back to Leslie,'' he said. "I guess in my naivete I thought they'd figure out she didn't do it and move on to who really did it.
"It was almost surreal that they were after Leslie. When I watch CSI or something, one of the investigators says, 'Don't chase the suspect. Follow the evidence.' And they never did that."
• Phoebe Zerwick can be reached at 727-7291 or at firstname.lastname@example.org