On November 28, 2002, 94-year-old Helen Sailor spent Thanksgiving with relatives and then got a ride back to her apartment in Waterfall High Rise Apartments complex for the elderly, disabled, and handicapped in Elkhart, Indiana. The following day, a health care provider and two relatives found her strangled to death in her apartment, which was ransacked. There was no forced entry, so police concluded that Sailor knew her assailant. They began interviewing residents, but the investigation went cold. Almost a year later, police revived the investigation and in September, 28-year-old Andrew Royer, a mentally-challenged resident of the building, was brought in for questioning. During the interrogation, Royer made his first statements that indicated he was familiar with the murder. After further questioning, he confessed to strangling Sailor with a rope. Police said that Royer then took jewelry and money from the apartment.
He was charged with murder on September 4, 2003. Some residents expressed relief, while others questioned whether Royer really was the killer. In 2004, the case took another turn. Royer’s case was repeatedly delayed by mental competency evaluations. During that time, police received a tip that 44-year-old Lana Canen, who also lived in the complex, was involved.
One of the officers believed that Canen was also responsible for a previous burglary at the building, although he had no evidence of this. Canen was brought in for questioning and denied involvement. Police interviewed a neighbor of hers and the neighbor, a heavy drug user, said Canen confessed to her, saying things such as, “no one was supposed to get hurt.” Canen was arrested on September 3, 2004, almost a year after Royer was arrested. Her fingerprints were compared to the fingerprints found in the victim’s apartment. Elkhart police asked Dennis Chapman, a detective, to conduct the latent print analysis. Canen’s prints were compared to a print found on a plastic container in Sailor’s apartment. Chapman had training in fingerprint classification and examining rolled fingerprints, but had no training in latent fingerprint comparisons. He concluded the fingerprint matched Canen’s left little finger.
Canen was charged with murder. Royer and Canen were tried together in Elkhart County Circuit Court. The prosecution told jurors that Canen and Royer entered Sailor’s apartment together and robbed and strangled her. The primary evidence against Royer was his confession and the primary evidence against Canen was the fingerprint and the neighbor’s testimony.
Canen took the stand in her own defense, denying any involvement, “I’ve never been in that apartment.”
The defense hired a retired to detective to analyze the fingerprint comparison, but didn’t call the detective as a witness because he concurred with Chapman’s match. On August 10, 2005, the jury convicted Royer and Canen and sentenced both to 55 years each in prison.
During the first set of appeals, their convictions were upheld. In 2010, Canen’s attorney requested access to the fingerprint evidence to re-evaluate it, but the prosecution objected and the motion was denied. When her attorney discovered that the examiner was not qualified and that Canen’s trial lawyer never investigated his credentials, she requested access again, but was denied. So her attorney, Cara Schaefer Wieneke, undeterred, sent photographs of the fingerprints to an independent examiner, Kathleen Bright-Bimbaum, a certified examiner at Desert Forensics in Arizona. She concluded that Canen’s fingerprints did not match the print at the scene. An amended motion was then filed for a new trial, on the grounds of inadequate assistance of counsel and innocence.
The neighbor recanted her testimony of Canen confessing to her in a series of incriminating statements. She now said she couldn’t recall whether that actually happened or not. Chapman said during deposition in 2011 that he performed 100 fingerprint comparisons and had a 100% accuracy rate. 6 months later, he was shown a PowerPoint prepared by the defense expert and told prosecutors he was concerned about his conclusions.
Chapman re-examined the evidence and concluded he was wrong. He changed his opinion and told the court at a post-conviction relief hearing that he had additional training since that time. He admitted that he overstated his experience during the trial and felt pressured by the police to help them solve the crime. He also said that he no longer believed the prints matched.
The prosecution which previously objected to Wieneke’s request to have the Indiana State Police Crime Lab compare the prints, decided to send the evidence after all. The lab confirmed that Canen’s prints did not match.
Wieneke filed for immediate release of Canen, but the prosecution offered a plea deal for time served. Canen refused the plea deal and the District Attorney’s Office joined the motion for release. In 2012, her conviction was vacated, the charges were dropped, and she was released. Canen had spent 8 years in prison for a murder she did not commit. Canen has always maintained her innocence.
She has now filed a lawsuit against two police officers involved in the false evidence against her. Dennis Chapman and officer Mark Daggy are named as defendants. Chapman, for his false match and overstating his credentials, and Daggy for advocating Chapman’s expertise. The lawsuit alleges that the Indiana State Crime Lab was supposed to review the fingerprints, but the request was withdrawn “for reasons unknown” and Chapman, far less qualified, was asked to examine them instead.
“This all could have been avoided,” Canen told The Tribune.
Canen is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. She is not suing the county or city. Her suit alleges that Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill did not know that Chapman wasn’t qualified.
Royer is serving 55 years at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, his appeals have all been denied to date. He has a projected release date of 2031 for good behavior.