Man exonerated over columnist’s killing freed from prison after 15 years

A man who spent 15 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit walked out of prison a free man on Thursday after a criminal justice nonprofit fought to reopen the case.

Ricky Davis, 54, was tried and convicted in 2005 for the brutal slaying of his housemate, newspaper columnist Jane Anker Hylton, in 1985. He was exonerated by DNA evidence that police and prosecutors initially failed to test, doing so only after the Innocence Project got involved and lobbied on Davis’ behalf.

In an unusual twist, that DNA evidence led police to arrest another man, 51-year-old Michael Green, for Hylton’s slaying.

In July 1985, Jane Hylton was staying at a friend’s house in El Dorado Hills, California when an unknown assailant stabbed her 29 times. An El Dorado County Sheriff’s lieutenant told the Sacramento Bee her body was found by Davis in her bedroom after the man, then 20, arrived back home from a party with Hylton’s daughter.

The case went cold until DNA evidence led police to Davis, who was convicted at the end of a lengthy criminal trial in 2005. He was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison, and the expectation was that he’d serve most of the rest of his life behind bars.

During the case, Davis was, at times, anxious — in hindsight, now understandable — and his temper occasionally got the better of him as a miscarriage of justice played out before his very eyes.

One such incident was well-documented by Pat Lakey, a newspaper reporter for the Mountain Democrat, who covered efforts by the Innocence Project to have Davis’ case re-heard.

“Is it the temper of a man wrongfully accused and convicted that flashes through the courtroom as quickly unleashed as lightning?” Lakey wrote in a May 2019 story. “Or is it more indicative of a man who has little control over his emotions and hates to be told no, especially when he wishes to have a young teenaged girl accompany him to a party?”

On Thursday, Lakey appeared as incredulous as everyone else.

“He didn’t do it,” Lakey wrote.

The DNA that led to Davis’ exoneration was discovered after forensic experts began re-evaluating the evidence used in the original case. Those experts eventually found DNA on a nightgown worn by Hylton that did not belong to Davis.

Last year, a superior court judge vacated Davis’ conviction and ordered a new trial. On Thursday, El Dorado County prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the charges against the man; a short time later, prosecutors announced the DNA was Green’s, who had been taken into custody earlier in the morning.

DNA evidence, though not always reliable, is often seen as the smoking gun in cases that lead to criminal convictions. Rarely is that same evidence used to prove a man innocent. Davis is only the second person in the United States to have a criminal conviction reversed based on genetic testing. He’s the first in California.

“Investigative genetic genealogy, just like traditional DNA, is about one thing: finding the truth no matter what it is,” Schuber said at a press conference on Thursday.

Hylton was a columnist for the Foothills Times, a Cameron Park newspaper started in 1981 that closed shortly after her death.