Things were coming together for Leslie Lincoln. At 46, she was recovering from a painful divorce. She had just bought a house across the street from the land where her three horses grazed. She had a new boyfriend. She had recently landed a good job as an administrator at an assisted living facility making $42,000 a year, the most she had ever earned.
Then, in March 2002, her mother, Arlene Lincoln, was found beaten and stabbed to death in her home in Greenville, N.C. Leslie, who lived nearby and visited her mother often, had been the last known person to see her alive. Over the next six months, Leslie Lincoln watched the investigation slowly zero in on her.
Quick Facts: Leslie Lincoln
Date of Crime: March 17, 2002
Victim: Arlene Lincoln, White, Age 72
Acquittal Date: March 23, 2007
Years Incarcerated: 3 years in jail, 2 years on house arrest
Real Perpetrator Found: No
Errors: The state pursued the death penalty against Leslie despite not having any physical evidence other than a mislabeled DNA sample. She was still put on trial for first-degree murder—with testimony from jailhouse snitches—even after her attorney found the DNA evidence to be false.
Police finally arrested her in September 2002, despite no physical evidence linking her to the crime, and the prosecutor said she would be tried for her life. It would take five years—during which she was falsely implicated by flawed DNA evidence—before Lincoln was finally acquitted by a jury. During that time, she lost her home, her savings, and her stability.
Since her acquittal in 2007, she has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and has drifted in and out of homelessness. She admits that she has been unable to cope with her wrongful arrest and its aftermath. She still grieves her mother’s death and cannot accept that her killer will never be found.
“It takes a hole out of your heart, and you just can’t fill it back up again,” she says. “You try to pour good memories in, but the bad ones get in.”
In the months leading up to her arrest, she says a police investigator badgered her in five-hour interrogation sessions, almost persuading her that maybe she had killed her mother and didn’t remember. Lincoln’s mother had clearly struggled and fought against her killer, and on the day of her murder, Lincoln and other family members had all rolled up their sleeves for police to show that they had no defensive wounds. Her interrogator said there was no record of that.
When she was arrested, she believed the mistake would be sorted out in a few days. Instead, she soon found out that the prosecutor planned to seek the death penalty against her.
Lincoln spent just over three years in jail while she awaited her trial—during which she was never allowed outside and saw the outdoors only through a frosted window. Lincoln then spent almost another two years on house arrest. She still cries when she remembers her first days in jail, which she spent in isolation, weeping ceaselessly, shivering with cold. She eventually made friends and learned to pass the hours doing crossword puzzles, playing Spades and working in the laundry room, but as the years went by, she suffered blow after blow: the sale of her horses, the death of her beloved dogs, the loss of her house, her truck, and her boyfriend.
Perhaps the biggest blow came on the day, a few months after her arrest, when Lincoln was informed that her DNA was found in a bloody handprint left at the crime scene. She reeled with disbelief. Her lawyer requested that the sample be retested, but the state lab refused. He went to a private lab instead, and new tests uncovered a shocking mistake: the DNA samples had been switched, and the DNA identified as Leslie Lincoln’s had actually belonged to her mother. None of Leslie’s DNA was found in the blood or other evidence collected at the crime scene. Lincoln says she will never be sure whether the incorrect results were the result of an error or an intentional effort to implicate her.
After the bungled DNA testing, prosecutors and police agreed to take the death penalty off the table, but they continued to pursue first-degree murder charges against her. They began offering to dismiss charges against other jail inmates, in return for testimony against Lincoln. They used the testimony of two snitches at trial. The jury took less than an hour and a half to find her innocent.
By the time she was exonerated, Lincoln had little to return to. She couldn’t find a good job, and had to take part-time work in fast food restaurants. She moved into an apartment, but couldn’t earn enough to hold on to it. Her grief over her mother’s death, pent up for five years, began to overtake her. She saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed medications for anxiety and depression, but still wore out the patience of close family members. She ended up moving into a homeless shelter and, in 2013, she spent several months living in her truck with a boyfriend she met at the shelter.
Her family members stood behind her through her trial, but they say they struggle to continue to help her. A couple years ago at Christmas, her brother and niece gave her the gift of expunging her criminal record. But they haven’t been able to expunge the psychological trauma of her wrongful arrest. They say the person who helped Lincoln through her personal trials in the past was her mother. Now that she is gone, they don’t know whether Lincoln will ever recover.
Since her exoneration, Lincoln says police have made no efforts to find her mother’s killer. She is haunted by the knowledge that a murderer is still free. Lincoln says she cannot get over the feeling of being vulnerable and alone. She has never received an apology from the police or prosecutors who tormented her.
“You just feel so helpless because you’re just this one little person. You want to say, ‘Don’t do this to anybody else.’”