Duran Bailey died a gruesome death. The homeless man met his end on July 8, 2001. His killer didn’t stop with the fatal blow to the back of his head. The perpetrator stabbed him, slashed his throat, knocked out his teeth and severed his penis. The medical examiner counted 30 injuries to his genitals and upper body. Between the bruising and the blood, Bailey wasn’t just killed, he was brutalized beyond almost all recognition.
Bailey’s indignities didn’t end with his death. After the killer finished with his body, that person buried him in garbage, the refuse from the Flamingo Road dumpster where the bloody crime occurred.
His killer fled from there. But to where? Police say Panaca. That’s where they arrested 18-year-old Kirstin Blaise Lobato more than 10 days after the crime.
Others aren’t so sure. Lobato’s supporters, who have followed the case from day one, say prosecutors got the wrong person. While Lobato languished in jail, they said, Bailey’s killer remained at large. And they think the only way to free their friend may be to find the real murderer.
To that end, they recruited the Innocence Project, an organization that has freed hundreds of wrongly convicted prisoners. The group has offered to underwrite DNA testing in the Lobato case. Kirstin’s supporters hope some piece of cellular detritus, a scrap of a genetic fingerprint, will blow the old case wide open again.
There’s just one problem. So far, the district attorney’s office, District Court and state Supreme Court have blocked efforts to test the evidence. A petition on Change.org urging the DA to allow testing has garnered more than 125,000 virtual signatures. But the office hasn’t budged.
“DNA testing is not going to exonerate her because she confessed,” said Steve Owens, chief deputy district attorney. “There are hundreds of profiles that could be pulled off the body because it was found in a dumpster. People will be chasing after a lot of red herrings.”
Prosecutors didn’t build their case on DNA evidence, which is why the courts have agreed with their argument. Confessions may not have their own network franchise — like CSI for forensic evidence — but the old-fashioned police statement is what convicted Kirstin Lobato. Both times.
When she was arrested, Lobato readily told police that she’d been attacked, and had used her knife to slash at the man’s exposed genitals. She sticks by that story to this day. Only her attack took place several weeks before Bailey’s murder, supporters say.
Throughout her trial, prosecutors portrayed her as a meth addict with a troubled past. Childhood sexual abuse and drug addiction had scrambled her moral circuitry and mental calendar, they said. How could a person in the middle of a drug binge be expected to accurately recall the date of a traumatic event?
The incident Lobato confessed to took place on the Boulder Strip, not across from the Palms, where Bailey was murdered.
“There was no similarity whatsoever between the rape attempt described in her statement and Bailey’s murder,” said Hans Sherrer, author of the book Kirstin Blaise Lobato’s Unreasonable Conviction.
Prosecutors still aren’t buying it. The uniquely brutal nature of the crime sets it apart, Owens said. Police just don’t encounter that many genital mutilations; to have two in two months would stretch the limits of statistical probability. And the other victim, on Boulder Highway, never surfaced.
The family faith in Kirstin’s innocence has never wavered, but their hope for her exoneration is definitely fading. Kirstin’s stepmother, Rebecca Lobato, came to Las Vegas to present the petition to District Attorney Steve Wolfson. She’s seen her daughter through other hardships, and she’ll stand by her this time, too, no matter how frustrating.
When she first met Kirstin, the little girl was a bright, lively 5-year-old. A year later, her mother’s boyfriend sexually assaulted her. Kirstin became afraid of crowds and strangers. At age 15, she got in to drinking and drugs.
Despite her problems, Kirstin was never violent, Rebecca said. So she was surprised to find her accused of such a heinous crime. The family assumed she would beat the rap. In fact, they were so confident, they urged her to turn down a plea deal that would have reduced most of her sentence to probation. Kirstin followed the family’s advice, and ended up with at least 40 years in prison. Rebecca choked up at the memory.
“I think about it every day, because she could have been home,” Rebecca said.
Lorenzo Lobato said his heart broke when he saw his little girl in handcuffs, accused of murder and mutilation. Over the years, as the case moved through the courts, that sorrow has hardened into anger. When the case was retried in 2007, Kirstin’s conviction was reduced to manslaughter, and her sentence knocked down to 13-to-40 years. That reduction was the last good thing the courts have given him, or his daughter.
“They’re too far in,” he said of prosecutors. “Why would you not release DNA to be tested when it could prevent this innocent person from spending her life in jail? I want the new district attorney to know that this injustice is happening on his watch.”
Still, the family can take comfort in at least one thing: Kirstin’s arrest and conviction probably saved her life, Rebecca said. The drugs were taking their toll. She has rebuilt her life inside of prison. Meth no longer has her in its grip.
That rehabilitation has come at a high price. Kirstin has spent more than a decade of her young life behind bars. If she continues to serve her sentence, it could be many more. Her family and friends think she has done enough time for a crime they don’t believe she committed.
“Enough is enough,” Rebecca Lobato said. “She’s been through enough. Now it’s time for this to be over.”
Prosecutors never relied on physical evidence to make their case. But that’s exactly what Lobato’s supporters would use to overturn her case. They say there are reams of evidence that undermines the prosecution’s case.
Sherrer wrote the book about it. At the first trial, all the physical evidence from the scene seemed the exclude the defendant. A shoe print was too big. A tire track didn’t match her car. Public hairs and fingerprints belonged to other people. But the chaos of the scene seemed to explain some of this inconsistency.
Now, however, her supporters want answers.
DNA testing has not only advanced in the last five years, it’s become so widespread that databases contain the genetic material of thousands of convicted criminals. Sherrer and other supporters want to take some of the evidence that didn’t match Lobato and run it through the database. Sherrer said that Bailey had some semen in his rectum that obviously didn’t some from Lobato. It couldn’t be tested in 2001 because the semen didn’t contain sperm. Now, the technology exists to analyze the sample. Sherrer said there were cigarette butts on the body that were almost certainly left by the killer. A quick comparison with the DNA database could yield some clues.
“There is no physical evidence tying her to the murder,” Sherrer said.
In fact, it isn’t just the DNA evidence that Sherrer wants to introduce. He also has forensic entomologists who have determined that Bailey was killed while Lobato was still in Panaca, more than two hours away. And some of his experts insist that Bailey’s murder was almost certainly the work of a man, and bore some traits of a homophobic attack. But none of the new evidence will be heard unless a court grants Lobato a new trial.
Michelle Ravell, a longtime Lobato supporter, resurrected the DNA testing campaign after Steve Wolfson was appointed district attorney. She hoped a new official might bring a new perspective to the old case. Nevada courts had already rejected the Innocence Project’s DNA offer in the Lobato case. Ravell thinks that Wolfson can authorize it without the court’s approval, and that is what she hopes he will do.
So far, she hasn’t gotten any further with him than she did with his predecessor.
“I asked to meet with him, not to discuss the case — I know he can’t do that,” Ravell said. “I just wanted to talk as a constituent with a concern. I left my phone number and my name. I never got a call back, and I was pretty disappointed in that.”
Lobato’s supporters simply don’t understand why the DA won’t allow the testing, which won’t cost taxpayers any money. It may not cost any money, Owens said, but it will take time.
“The courts set a pretty low bar for DNA testing in cases like these,” he said. “There has to be a reasonable possibility that it could exonerate her. We listen to the courts, not to public opinion that’s uninformed.”