Posts

Most of us are familiar with famous forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee. I, in fact, I have a couple of books on my office shelves, reference material that features his renowned work. He’s practically a guru when it comes to his word in a court of law, as it pertains to crime scene evidence.

Dr. Lee’s word had been golden until a recent case in Connecticut showcased a crack in the manner as to how he collects and examines crime scene evidence. As a result, his character came under fire.

Sure, mistakes happen because Dr. Lee, like the rest of us, is merely human. But when those errors send potentially innocent people to prison for decades at a time before a third party discovers that an expert, especially one of Dr. Lee’s caliber, offered incorrect testimony during a murder trial, well, it’s nothing short of inexcusable. The facts in this case speak for themselves. Someone goofed and it caused two men to spend the past three decades behind bars.

The Case

Two men, Sean Henning and Ralph Birch, were convicted for the horrific murder of Everett Carr, a victim who was stabbed 47 times. His attackers also slit the man’s throat and then tracked Carr’s blood throughout the house.

Henning and Birch were sent to prison based partially on the testimony of Dr. Lee.

Dr. Lee testified that a towel in the victim’s bathroom had a small speck on it, a spot that he had tested and found was “consistent with blood.” Dr. Lee’s word is golden, right?

However, the Innocence Project, after taking the case, offered that the state forensic laboratory revealed the towel had not been tested prior to the original trial. And, in a shocking discovery, they learned that when the lab did finally test the towel for DNA they determined the substance (the spot) on the towel was not blood after all. A KEY piece of evidence.

So how was it that Dr. Lee arrived at his conclusion regarding the spot on the towel found in a second floor bathroom? The renowned expert simply relied on the results of a presumptive field test, a chemical that turns blue in the presence of blood. But, presumptive field tests are used merely as an indication of that the substance is probably blood, drugs, etc. It is only when a full test in a laboratory is performed that can confirm the actual ID of a substance.

Field tests are not always 100% accurate. They do, however, provide probable cause which points an official in a certain direction—to pursue the notion that blood or drugs are present, or not (to make preliminary conclusions). Proper and formal lab tests are a must if the substance in question is to be introduced in court as evidence.

So what happens when officers and experts such as Dr. Henry Lee offer inconsistent and/or inaccurate and misleading evidence?

Last Friday, Connecticut’s highest court ruled that Sean Henning and Ralph Birch should get a new trial.

In the decision, Justice Richard Palmer wrote, “It is inarguable that Lee, as the representative of the state police forensic laboratory, should have known that the bathroom towel had not been tested for blood. He, like any such witness, had an affirmative obligation to review any relevant test reports before testifying so as to reasonably ensure that his testimony would accurately reflect the findings of those tests.

To conclude otherwise would permit the state to gain a conviction on the basis of false or misleading testimony even though the error readily could have been avoided if the witness merely had exercised due diligence.” 

The Appeals Court said, “We agree with the petitioner that, contrary to the determination of the habeas court, he is entitled to a new trial due to the state’s failure to alert the trial court and the petitioner that Lee’s testimony was incorrect, and, therefore, we reverse the judgment of the habeas court.” 

And just like that, after a 57-year career of investigating over 8,000 cases, a tiny stain on a towel instantly became a large stain on the record, reputation, and the integrity of one of the world’s leading forensic experts.

After serving 30 years in prison, Henning has been released on probation. Birch remains incarcerated at the Osborn Correctional Institution. Meanwhile, prosecutors must decide whether or not the two men should face a new trial.

Dr. Lee adamantly states he did nothing wrong.

The courts and the two men who were tried and convicted and imprisoned based mostly on Lee’s testimony back in the late 1980s, well, they’d probably disagree with Dr. Lee’s self assessment.

 

The death penalty has long been a subject of controversy. Some of those against it argue that it’s not our place to take the life of another human, no matter how heinous the crime. Others say the process amounts to cruelty akin to torture. And, there’s the claim that innocent men and women could be executed, especially when taking into account the number of people released from death row—160—after evidence proved their innocence.

Not long ago, condemned inmate Clayton Lockett was strapped to a gurney and subsequently administered the drugs that were supposed to kill him, in a humane manner—the first drug should sort of put the inmate to sleep while the others that follow end his/her life. Well, what followed the introduction of medications was evidence of all that could go wrong during an execution. Lockett gasped, wheezed, writhed, breathed heavily, and lifted his head. Remember, the process is supposed to be humane, right?

In 1994, I witnessed the execution of Timothy W. Spencer, the serial killer nicknamed The Southside Strangler. Spencer was put to death via the electric chair. I was told ahead of time by prison officials that the process was a totally nonviolent and extremely humane way “to go.” Well, it wasn’t. Not even close.

After Spencer was strapped to the chair by the “death squad,” who also attached the electrical leads, one to his head and the other to a leg, he was hit by two jolts of electricity. The first caused Spencer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints. Had he not been tightly fastened to the oak chair, I’m almost certain the strong electrical shock would have propelled his body forward and then down to the concrete floor where he’d have flopped about like a fish out of water.

The second surge of electrical current was the one that left an impression in my mind, even after all these years. In fact, it left a permanent etch in my senses—taste, smell, sight, and sound. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask covering his face. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

After a wait of five minutes, the prison doctor placed his stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, and then said, “Warden, this man has expired.” By the way, the wait time was to allow the body time to cool off enough so the doctor wouldn’t burn himself.

Maybe it’s just me, but that process—death by electric chair—was far more troubling than to see someone moan, writhe, and breathe heavy. Still, suffering is suffering, no matter the form.

The Death Penalty: Do We Kill Innocent People?

Going back to the number of people released from death row after their innocence had been proven … is it possible that prison officials have killed innocent people? Sure it is, and the post conviction proceedings to prove one’s innocence is a massive uphill battle. But Ray Krone and his attorneys did just that … after Ray served 10 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

Actually, according to Witness To Innocence, the average amount of time an exonerated death row survivor spends behind bars is approximately 10 years. What about the prisoners who were executed during those 10 years? How many of them were killed while the real killers live among us?

Okay, I strayed a bit, but I can’t help but think about Ray and his story each time an inmate is executed.

The so-called botched execution of Clayton Lockett brought the death penalty back into the spotlight. President Obama asked his attorney general to look into the matter of Lockett’s execution, and others. He called Lockett’s execution “troubling,” and he expressed concern that death penalty sentences may be racially biased and that those sentences may be unevenly applied. Let’s have a look at the stats.

 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

Since 1976, 1463 death row prisoners have been executed.

– 55.8% of prisoners executed were white

– 34.4% African American

– 8.2% Hispanic

– 1.6% other

 

Race of Victims in Death Penalty Cases

– 76% were White

– 15% African American

– 7% Hispanic

– 2% other

 

Currently, there are 2843 inmates on death row.

 

Death row inmates by race:

White – 42%

Black – 42%

Hispanic – 13%

Other – 3%

Total number of death row prisoners exonerated = 160

So why does the U.S. execute murderers? Does the threat of execution prevent people from committing murder? Does it stop serial killers from doing what they do? Or, do we execute merely as a form of Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Well, according to a survey of Midwest presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies, 88% of the experts polled rejected the idea that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. (Radelet & Lacock, 2009)

You tell me, is it time to stop executing killers? Or, are we not killing them fast enough?

Do you care that a certain amount of suffering sometimes takes place during lethal injections and electrocutions? Is it worth the risk of killing an innocent person, like Ray Krone, to give the population some sort of satisfaction and/or closure?

Could you “pull the switch”, knowing there’s a possibility that the person in “the chair” is innocent?

Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia—the man who executed the death row inmate I saw put to death—best put this subject into perspective when he said, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.”

Givens, after executing 62 people, now strongly opposes the death penalty.