This Bible school student said he had a dream that might help the police. Now he’s doing 40 years for murder.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon in October 1980, when Steve Linscott looked out his window and noticed police cars parked across the street from his apartment in Oak Park, a tired old suburb of Chicago. A while later there was a knock on his door. It was the police, saying there had been a murder in the neighborhood and asking if the Linscotts had seen or heard anything unusual the night before. No, they hadn’t, but they said they’d phone if anything turned up. Linscott, a 26-year-old student at nearby Emmaus Bible School, did recall a strange dream he had had the night before about a man beating someone, but he didn’t think it was worth mentioning.

Two days later, his wife, Lois, read in the paper that the victim was Karen Phillips, a young nursing student, and that she had been raped and beaten to a bloody death. Steve remembered his dream. After talking it over with a few close friends, he phoned the police, thinking somehow the dream might help them.

Linscott proved to be much more help to the police than he ever intended to be. After closely questioning Linscott on two occasions about what he saw in his dream, and after hair and body sample tests failed to exonerate him, Oak Park police concluded that what Linscott experienced was no dream. They charged him with murder, and a jury convicted him. Today Linscott, instead of preparing to take his wife and three small children to the mission field in Papua New Guinea, sits in an Illinois prison, faced with a 40-year jail sentence, with no chance of parole for 20 years.

Many from the Emmaus Bible School community were incredulous that Linscott was charged, and they were stunned at the verdict. The evidence just didn’t seem to be strong. There were no fingerprints found, no blood on his clothes, nothing to show that he was in the victim’s apartment, that he had a motive, nor that he even knew her. He had an unblemished work record and had never been in trouble with the police before. There were only the dream and the results of the body sample tests, results which would later be seriously disputed.

The prosecutors acknowledge that the evidence against Linscott is entirely circumstantial, but they believe it to be strong nonetheless. One of them said that although he personally is convinced of Linscott’s guilt, it is remotely possible that they convicted the wrong person.

Lois, the daughter of former missionaries to the Bahamas, is convinced of her husband’s innocence. She tells the children only that “there has been a mistake.” She and the children have moved to Centralia, Illinois, where Steve is imprisoned. They see him four hours a week.

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All in all, Linscott seemed to be an unlikely candidate for a murderer. Nonetheless, the prosecution built a case against Linscott that was credible, at least in the minds of the jurors. The scientific details concerning the hair and body sample tests are complex, the jargon thick, but those tests were central to the prosecution’s case. The thrust of the argument is that the mixture of semen and vaginal fluids found in a vaginal swab taken from the victim was “consistent with” what a mixture of Linscott’s and Phillips’s would have been. The prosecution argued that tests limited possible suspects to less than 15 percent of the male population and that Linscott is in that 15 percent.

In addition, the prosecution’s scientific expert testified that some hair samples found at the scene of the murder were, again, “consistent with” Linscott’s hair. (More about that term “consistent with” later.)

Also at the heart of the argument was what became known to the court as the “dream testimony.” The prosecution held that Linscott’s telling of his dream was actually a confession of guilt. Attorneys argued that Linscott’s description of the murderer fit his own description. He knew the number of blows delivered to the victim’s head (seven). He described the murder scene as a dark, living room setting, which it was. He described the murder weapon as a blunt, metal object. It was a tire iron. He said the murderer was wearing a terry cloth shirt. When Linscott had his picture taken for police records, he was wearing a terry cloth shirt. The prosecution concluded that Linscott knew details that “only the real killer could know,” and apparently the jury, after eight hours of deliberation, thought so too. It found Linscott not guilty of rape, but guilty of murder. That decision puzzles Linscott supporters to this day.

But instead of ending the case, the verdict generated renewed action by people who had been trying to free Linscott. Two of those working most diligently were Joseph Ritchie, a 1969 graduate of Wheaton College and senior partner in a Chicago commodity futures trading company, and Gordon Haresign, director of Bible correspondence at Emmaus. From the beginning, they refused to believe what the police believed—that dreams such as Linscott’s are impossible. (It could not be ascertained why police didn’t consider Linscott merely a psychic.)

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The first step was to hire a new lawyer who could lay a new defense. Along with the Linscotts, Ritchie and Haresign researched the credentials of 12 of Chicago’s top defense lawyers before settling on Thomas Decker. Decker in turn hired a private investigator. The investigator had a head start because Haresign had conducted an investigation of his own.

“At the time of Steve’s arrest I had come to know him very well,” Haresign said. “For Steve to commit murder was totally inconsistent with the kind of person I knew him to be.” So Haresign, a Bible teacher, became an amateur private eye after hours, slogging through dozens of leads, checking with anybody who might know anything and who was willing to talk. (His credentials as a “minister of the gospel” opened many doors to him.) Haresign believes he found a suspect and has turned his fat file over to Decker’s investigator. That suspect, a convicted rapist who lived in the victim’s neighborhood, was known to police, but they had ruled him out on the basis of results of his body fluid tests. But Haresign believes he found something the police did not find. The suspect’s blood type and that of Karen Phillips were identical, a factor that renders the tests on his body fluids inconclusive. When Haresign realized this, he hastened to the supervisor of the crime lab which performed the tests on his suspect. Yes, it was true, Haresign was told. Wrong conclusions might well have been drawn.

Hearing about this, Ritchie turned his attention to the chemical tests performed on the vaginal swab, which found fluids “consistent with” Linscott’s. Ritchie set out to find the country’s top serologist. All leads pointed to Brian Wraxall of the Serological Research Institute in Emeryville, California, as being the undisputed expert in the field. Ritchie sent the test procedures and results to Wraxall. Wraxall returned a signed affidavit stating that “the semen donor [could have been] any male in the population.” Ritchie emphasizes that Wraxall’s authority is unquestioned. Ritchie concludes that if all the facts in the case were accurately exposed, Linscott’s innocence would be obvious. To help pay for all this, Linscott’s church, River Forest Bible Chapel, began raising money. It sent out more than a thousand letters and so far has raised more than $60,000 from hundreds of donors.

Meanwhile, on the courtroom front, Decker, the new defense attorney, was pushing hard for a new trial. In a lengthy motion filed with the court, he hurled some stinging allegations at the prosecuting attorneys, charging, among other things, that they “knowingly used the truth falsely.”

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Decker claims the prosecution knew that the vaginal swab tests could prove nothing, and that the prosecutors used that amorphous term “consistent with” merely to impress the jury. Decker alleges the term is meaningless in this case.

As for the hair samples, Ritchie is willing to pay to have them examined by the world’s best experts. However, not being legally obligated to do so, the prosecution refuses to release the samples. (There has been some confusion about whether they will permit the samples to be examined inside the lab.)

Finally, the defense argues that the similarities between the dream and the event were overplayed. Linscott only generally fits the description of the murderer in his dream. In the dream the victim was black. Phillips was white. In the dream there was nothing said about a rape. Police said she was raped. Linscott described a terry cloth shirt worn by the attacker with two stripes across the chest and one on the sleeve (he didn’t say which sleeve). His own shirt, which he wore to the police station, had terry cloth in the sleeves only, and no stripes across the chest (although it did have one stripe on each sleeve).

Another allegation by the defense concerns whether Linscott knew that Phillips was killed with a tire iron. In his written description of the dream, and in the transcripts of the two sessions at police headquarters, Linscott never mentioned the tire iron. The police claim that Linscott did say it was a tire iron in a phone conversation with them, but that the tape of the conversation was erased inadvertently. At the time of the trial (more than a year and a half after the murder) the police produced only handwritten notes of that conversation. The notes contained the words “tire iron.”

Neither the Oak Park police nor the chief prosecutor in the case, Assistant State’s Attorney Jay Magnuson, would comment on any of this, but the assistant prosecutor, John Morrissey, did have something to say. He said it was not necessarily true that the vaginal swab tests were inconclusive, but he acknowledged, as the prosecution has all along, that the evidence drawn from the tests was circumstantial. Nevertheless, he said, “As far as I’m concerned, Linscott did it. We convicted the right guy. The jury, my partner, and I may be the only people in the world who believe that at this point, but that’s my opinion.” Then he conceded, “It is possible, remotely possible, that someone other than Linscott did it.”

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If there were as many holes in the prosecution’s case as the defense now claims, why was Linscott ever convicted? There are varied explanations from the people backing him: the original defense attorney was not enough of a scientist, the “facts” were masked in scientific jargon, the defense simply was outmaneuvered. The sum of it all, say his supporters, was an indelible, though false, picture in the minds of the jurors.

Today, Linscott is the first to admit that he was extremely naïve about dealing with the police. Each time he went to police headquarters to answer questions about his dream, they read him his rights (“You have the right to remain silent.… Whatever you say can and will be used against you in court.… You have the right to consult with a lawyer.…). Yet Linscott believed the detectives when they assured him he was not really a suspect, only a psychic witness, perhaps. He didn’t ask for a lawyer. Instead, believing he was actually helping out, he allowed himself to be led down rabbit trails of speculation about why the man in his dream might have killed the woman, whether he was feeling any remorse, whether Linscott might be able to reach out to the killer through prayer to convince him to give himself up. A reading of the transcripts shows that Linscott seemed to be speaking candidly from his well of Bible knowledge about sin, salvation, and repentance. The detectives, on a different wavelength, seemed to be trying to help a psychotic killer get in touch with himself, or with his alternate personality. Only at the end of the second interview, did the police, unable to get a confession, angrily confront Linscott with their belief that he was the murderer. Only then did the stunned Linscott ask for a lawyer. The police read Linscott’s refusal to confess as lack of remorse for the crime, and they told him he would get the electric chair because he was not sorry.

Decker, the new defense attorney, believes there is a strong chance Linscott will be granted a retrial. But the process could take a year or even longer. Optimistic Linscott supporters are hoping that he will be pardoned by Illinois Governor James Thompson, whose legal staff is looking into the case. Haresign emphasized that accepting a pardon would by no means be an admission of guilt.

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As the people who believe him continue his fight on the outside, Linscott spends a lot of his time inside Centralia Correctional Institute reflecting on what has happened. “There have been some dark days,” he says, “when there was no word from the outside, and all I had was my faith that God is working in all this.” He continues, “We have one of the closest families I know of. But our relationship has been hurt, and the children have been hurt by the separation.”

Linscott is by no means broken. He has a cheerful sense of humor. Likening himself to Joseph, he says he is trying to take advantage of opportunities for ministry inside prison walls. Nevertheless, he wants his freedom. “There have been times of bitterness and anger,” he says. He believes that some people wanted a conviction more than they wanted the truth. He adds, “I still have great respect for authority, but I no longer respect some of the people wielding it. They have taken away the values and freedoms they are supposed to protect.”

The Linscotts’ plans for missionary work have been delayed, but not canceled. “We know God has a purpose in this,” Lois says. “He has given us the strength to make it through. We hope it will end soon.” She continues, “But even if Steve is not free until we’re 60, then, when he does get out, we’ll act like 25-year-olds.”

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