Daniels, who turns 57 Wednesday, was given a life sentence in 1980 when he was convicted of raping a 15-year-old white girl in Wilmington.
The state has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, saying there was faulty FBI testimony on hair evidence and a mistaken witness identification - but won’t say he’s innocent.
Daniels’ attorney Emeka Igwe said his client, an African American, completely denies the charges.
Igwe argues the case is rife with racial bias. He says the prosecutor and the judge were white. And the jury which convicted him was all white.
“Race played a very big factor in this case," he said. "It’s not something we like to talk about, but the reality is the reality and the truth is the truth.”
The Delaware Attorney General’s Office said there’s not sufficient evidence he was wrongfully convicted.
Igwe strongly disagrees with that interpretation.
“Mr. Daniels was convicted wrongfully and incarcerated wrongfully for 39 years," he said. "And it’s a tragic, sad case of injustice and Mr. Daniels would have died in jail had we not got involved in this case.”
In 1980, an FBI agent testified in Elmer Daniels' rape trial that hair evidence found on both the victim and Daniels linked him to the assault.
Thirty-nine years later, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have determined that testimony – ironclad at the time – has "exceeded the limits of science" and is "invalid," court documents say.
The state won't go so far as to say Daniels, now 56, is innocent.
But it does say that dismissing the indictment is the "most just outcome."
Given the minimum mandatory sentence for first-degree rape today, the state determined that if Daniels would have been found guilty now, he would have already served his sentence plus additional time.
Daniels would be released after Superior Court accepts the state's motion.
The Delaware Department of Justice was notified of the problematic testimony in this case from FBI Special Agent Michael Malone on Jan. 31, 2018, according to court documents.
The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have been assisting the FBI in reviewing testimony regarding the use of hair evidence since 2015 when the federal agency publicly said FBI hair examiners were providing overreaching testimony.
In 2015, three defendants were identified among more than 250 cases nationwide in which this flawed testimony was provided. The Delaware cases were not made public.
Early this year, the state and Daniels learned that the testimony about the weight of hair evidence and its impact on the case may have reached too far.
What did the FBI agent do?
The agent said in court that because a hair sample found on Daniels' pants could have come from the victim, and head hair found on the victim's underwear could have come from Daniels, that it was considered a "double match," according to court documents and trial transcripts.
The state relied upon this testimony to argue that Daniels was the man who raped the woman, citing the agent's assertion that he had never had a case where the hair samples didn't link back to the people in the specific case, according to court documents.
The state can't retry the case because the evidence was destroyed after Daniels appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court and lost, according to court documents.
"The State has filed this motion in view of its broader responsibility for the integrity of the criminal justice process and in the broader interest of justice," Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn wrote in court documents, stressing that there is no belief that a legal error occurred.
State prosecutors have no other suspects and prosecutors wrote that they were unable to contact the victim despite exhaustive attempts to find her.
What happened on Jan. 15, 1980?
Court documents say that on Jan. 15, 1980, a 15-year-old girl was walking from a local party to a gas station to call her mother. At the time, she was with a person she had only met that day who was intoxicated, court papers say.
When they left the gas station, they sat near railroad tracks at the corner of Augustine Cut-off and Lovering Avenue in Wilmington when they were approached by an African-American man who they didn't know, according to court documents.
The man, who identified himself as a security guard for the railroad, "threw her down, choked her, and raped her," court papers say. The person with her witnessed the attack.
The victim gave police a description of her attacker, as did the witness, after she reported the crime to law enforcement and sought medical attention at a local hospital, according to court documents.
How did police handle the investigation?
Police then showed her about 300 pictures, but she couldn't identify the man who raped her.
A second set of photos – which would later be disputed at trial and in the years after Daniels' conviction – led the victim to identify her attacker, according to court documents.
The only reason Daniels appeared in the line-up was because the witness to the crime "identified the suspect as someone named Elmer he knew from school where they had been in the same 8th grade homeroom class," court papers say.
A teacher confirmed this accusation back in 1980, but newly produced school transcripts found this statement to be false – Daniels and the witness never attended school together.
Still, a Wilmington police detective testified at the trial that the woman positively identified Daniels as her attacker and said that "there was no doubt in her mind," according to court records.
Why is this coming to light now?
Back in 2015, the Justice Department and FBI acknowledged that for more than 20 years preceding 2000, nearly every examiner in the FBI's elite microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in trials.
This affected cases to the prosecutors' benefit. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project, which has been involved in this review, found that the testimony aided in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed by early 2015.
As this review process has continued, states like Delaware have been notified of cases they believe should be revisited. [MORE]