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Rodney Lincoln’s daughter never stopped fighting to prove his innocence. A new podcast tells their story

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Rodney Lincoln was convicted of the brutal 1982 murder of JoAnn Tate. Decades later, after his daughter pushed to reopen the case, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens commuted Lincoln's sentence.

In April 1982, a St. Louis woman named JoAnn Tate was brutally assaulted and murdered. Her two young daughters, Melissa and Renee, were attacked and barely survived. Their uncle found them the next day — their house was covered in blood, and there were knives strewn all over.

After a hasty, emotion-filled investigation fraught with inconclusive evidence, and based mostly on the eyewitness testimony of a traumatized 7-year-old Melissa, a man named Rodney Lincoln was convicted.

But to some, the conviction didn’t sit right. Kay Lincoln, Rodney’s daughter, trusted her father from the start when he told her he was innocent. Then, more than a decade later, Kay Lincoln started doing her own research on her father’s case.

“As I uncovered evidence, documents and facts — and found more and more pieces to the puzzle — I knew from my own research and digging that he did not do this, that he had always been innocent,” Lincoln said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. 

Soon after, she contacted the Midwest Innocence Project, and together they uncovered shocking details about the case: overlooked suspects, police incompetence, missing evidence and unchecked alibis.

The saga is detailed in a new podcast, “The Real Killer,” produced by Leah Rothman and AYR Media. She had originally heard about the case when “Crime Watch Daily” covered it while she was working for the show. Rothman said it stuck with her long afterward.

Leah Rothman and Kay Lincoln on "The Real Killer"

“This is a story that I haven't been able to walk away from because of the people at the center of it,” she told host Sarah Fenske. “I mean, I could tear up just thinking about all their strength.”

The episode of “Crime Watch Daily” about Rodney Lincoln and JoAnn Tate changed the course of the case and led to shocking revelations for everyone involved. Melissa Davis, who had been so convinced Lincoln was her mother’s killer, watched the episode and realized she may have made a mistake. She reached out to Kay Lincoln.

“When she answered the phone, she was sobbing uncontrollably. And she just kept saying, ‘I'm so sorry, your poor dad, I'm so sorry,’” Lincoln said. “And I'm trying to hold it together on my end, because my mind is going a million miles a minute, knowing what this means.”

Though Davis had once fought to keep her father in prison, Lincoln said she always had compassion for Davis — and comforted her when they talked on the phone.

“I felt so terrible for her that she was in such distress, because none of this was ever her fault,” Lincoln said. “And she had so much put on her at such a young age, and then felt the burden to carry this, what she believed to be her truth, for her entire life.”

Davis’ realization led her to eventually recant her testimony and to believe her mother was the victim of notorious serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells (which is still unconfirmed, and Sells was executed by the state of Texas in 2014 for other murders he’d committed). A few years after Davis’ recantation, then-Gov. Eric Greitens commuted Rodney Lincoln’s sentence in 2018.

Kay Lincoln said she was happy to have the story finally shared in a podcast.

“What I hope someone gets from this podcast is, if someone is in the position I was, who has any loved one behind bars for a crime they didn't commit, and they cannot find the help that they need — get busy,” she said. “Start digging, do whatever you have to do, and don't stop.”

Rothman said it was important to her to share this story and make people realize there were real human beings involved in this case.

“This story, these people, their struggles, their strength deserves the time that a podcast can give it. And I'm so thankful that we are able to share and show who these people are,” Rothman said. “They're not just headlines, they're not just names in passing — these are three-dimensional, amazing human beings.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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