Man freed after authorities destroy evidence in 1998 homicides

The Oregonian
BYLINE: Helen Jung, The Oregonian

Polk County, OR

Philip Scott Cannon (left) walks Friday from the Polk County Jail in Dallas with his son, Mathias, 20. Prosecutors chose to drop charges against Cannon, who spent more than a decade behind bars in a 1998 triple homicide, after key evidence could not be found for a retrial.
First, Polk County prosecutors relied on bullet evidence that was later found too unreliable for their case in a 1998 triple homicide.

Then, authorities destroyed other evidence from the fatal shootings of three people in a rural area west of Salem.

Now, Philip Scott Cannon, who was convicted but maintained his innocence throughout 10 years in prison, is a free man.

Cannon, 43, was released Friday from the Polk County Jail in Dallas after prosecutors dismissed murder charges against him. He is expected to live with his father at his Salem-area farm as he adjusts to his new life outside of prison, said his attorney, Mark J. Geiger.

"He was kind of shellshocked," Geiger said. "The reality of getting out is pretty staggering. He's got a lot here in terms of family, but in terms of life -- it's starting over ..."

Cannon said he was relieved he had finally been released but called the experience "devastating."

He said his parents, brother and children as well as his partner, who gave birth to his youngest son while he was in prison, all stood by him the entire time.

"They had absolute confidence in my innocence," Cannon said. "They never wavered."

In a motion filed Friday morning in Marion County Circuit Court, the Polk County district attorney's office requested dropping of the charges against Cannon, saying that "dismissal is in the best interest of justice for the reason that necessary evidence is unavailable."

In a statement, District Attorney Stan Butterfield said the evidence was destroyed in 2005, after Cannon's direct appeals were exhausted, despite a county policy calling for retention of evidence in murder cases through all post-conviction appeals.

The dismissal of charges reopened deep wounds for the three victims' families.

"There's no closure for our family," said Thomas Osborne, the father of one of the victims. Suzan Renee Osborne was found shot in the head at a mobile home with Jason Roger Kinser and Celesta Joy Graves. "There's no closure for his (family) either. It's just a bad deal all around."

Osborne said he couldn't believe it when Polk County authorities told him they lost additional evidence.

"The justice system, as far as I'm concerned, absolutely sucks," he said. "How do you lose evidence?"

Jennifer Murdock, Graves' sister, said only: "We are very unpleased that he is being cut free."

Glenn Betts, Kinser's stepfather, said Friday from his home in Lakewood, Wash., that he would feel better about the release if there was evidence ruling out Cannon as the killer.

"If the guy is innocent, I want him out," Betts said. "But if there's any doubt about his innocence, he's been convicted and I want him in."

The dismissal came after prosecutors were told to take another look at the case, which relied in part on evidence from "comparative bullet lead analysis," a technique abandoned by the FBI in 2005 because of its unreliability. After Geiger challenged the use of the bullet analysis, the state agreed in August that Cannon should receive a new trial.

The Polk County district attorney, with assistance from the state attorney general's office, re-evaluated the case. During the review, authorities discovered the evidence had been destroyed.

Butterfield declined to provide further details, saying the investigation remains open. He said the evidence was destroyed before his term and that he "enacted policy changes to make sure nothing like this happens again."

The prosecutors' motion, which was approved by Marion County Circuit Judge Albin Norblad, dismisses the charges "without prejudice," meaning prosecutors may refile charges if they are merited.

No weapon was found and no motive was established in the three killings. Cannon testified that he had been called to look at a plumbing problem at the victims' trailer. They were alive when he left, he said.

But two witnesses who were on their way to deliver meth to one of the victims said Cannon had acted strangely and stopped them from trying to get inside, according to news reports at the time. The landlord, who lived nearby, saw smoke coming from the trailer and found the bodies.

Timothy J. Gonzalez/The Associated Press

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