Shortly after midnight on July 7, 1985, newspaper columnist Jane Hylton was found stabbed to death inside a blood-spattered El Dorado, Calif., home. It took 20 years for a man to be convicted of her murder — despite his repeated protests of innocence.
On Thursday, 15 years after Ricky Leo Davis was imprisoned, forensic evidence and genetic genealogy proved he was telling the truth. He has been exonerated of all charges related to the crime after DNA evidence linked Hylton’s death to a new suspect, who is now in police custody.
“Simply put, Ricky Leo Davis did not kill Jane Hylton,” El Dorado County Dist. Atty. Vern Pierson said.
The case was backed by the Northern California Innocence Project and marks the first time in California history that the use of investigative genealogy — the same process that led to the arrest of alleged Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. — has led to the exoneration of one person and the simultaneous incrimination of a new suspect.
“When crime scene evidence is uploaded to a genealogy site, law enforcement does not get access to individual’s genetic information. They get the same information that anyone using that site would get — a list of potential relatives that may lead them to the answer,” Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert said. “Investigative genealogy, just like DNA, is about one thing: finding the truth no matter what it is. The victim and her daughter deserve that. Ricky Davis deserves that.”
Davis’ initial conviction in 2005 was based heavily on accounts obtained from his former girlfriend, Connie Dahl, under what officials referred to as aggressive interrogation techniques.
At the the time of Hylton’s death, reports suggested that Hylton and her 13-year-old daughter, Autumn, had fled Hylton’s husband and had taken refuge inside Davis’ mother’s home, where Davis and his former girlfriend Dahl were also living. Dahl, who died in 2014, originally said that she, Davis and Autumn discovered the 54-year-old woman after her death.
But detectives had theorized that after Hylton prohibited Autumn from attending a party with Dahl and Davis, Davis lost his temper and attacked Hylton. Years later, when pressed by detectives in the case over details she had provided one day after Hylton’s death to the Mountain Democrat newspaper, Dahl changed her story and blamed Davis for the slaying.
Autumn’s testimony has consistently remained the same in the years since her mother’s death, and ultimately led to the arrest of a suspect officials identified as Michael Green. That was the name Autumn gave to authorities years ago. Green would have been a juvenile at the time of the crime. Officials offered limited details about Green’s possible involvement in Hylton’s death.
Pierson said that prior to Hylton’s death, Autumn said she left the house, angry that her mother would not allow her to attend a party with Davis and Dahl. While walking outside, she said, she ran into three teenage boys, including Green and two others. Autumn went back into the house, changed her clothes and told her mother that she was going over to a friend’s house, before meeting up with the boys again. Later, she said that she, Dahl and Davis discovered the gruesome scene.
In court, Green denied her account.
The Innocence Project in Northern California has been working on Davis’ case since 2010, four years after he sent a letter asking for help. Davis had previously served time behind bars, including a nine-year stint for bank robbery. But Melissa O’Connell, a staff attorney and policy liaison at the Innocence Project who has overseen Davis’ case, said she was sure he was not guilty of murder. Ultimately, the 2014 discovery of DNA evidence pulled from Hylton’s nightgown helped exonerate him.
“To say this has been a day that has been long overdue is an understatement,” she said. “Ricky never gave up hope that the the truth would come out and he would be proven innocent. I think that’s remarkable of the human spirit.”
Following the announcement of Davis’ freedom, O’Connell said that the 54-year-old hugged his mother in the courtroom. His mother and sisters have been steadfast supporters in the years since his conviction.
O’Connell said that, according to Davis, he has been behind bars for 23 years and 184 days. Once released, his first meal after years of confinement, she said, will be pizza.