Posts Tagged ‘unreliable forensic evidence’

Steven Mark Chaney who was imprisoned for 28 years for the 1987 murders of two people in Dallas, TX was released this week after his conviction based upon discredited bite-mark evidence was thrown out.  Chaney was sentenced to life in prison after a forensic dentist told a Dallas jury in 1989 that there was a 1 in 1,000,000 chance that the murderer was someone other than Chaney.  The bite-marks were allegedly found on John Sweek.  The dentist has since recanted his testimony.  State District Judge Dominique Collins overturned Chaney’s conviction after receiving a joint request from the District Attorney Susan Hawk, the Innocence Project, and the Public Defender’s Office.

Chaney, 59, will remain free while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reviews the case.

“I could sit and recount all the wrongs,” Chaney told reporters, “The loss of my oldest stepson, my oldest grandchild two years ago, but this is a time for rejoicing…”

At least one juror after his initial trial said that the bite-mark evidence convinced them of Chaney’s guilt, despite testimony from 9 witnesses that he was somewhere else during the murders of John and Sally Sweek.  In recent years, forensic scientists have raised doubts about the reliability of bite mark evidence among others.  In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report concluding that there was insufficient scientific basis to conclusively match bite marks to individuals.  The Texas Forensic Science Commission is reviewing cases in which bite analysis contributed to a conviction to determine whether they warrant further investigation.  In addition, defense lawyers also allege that prosecutors knowingly presented false evidence that blood had been found on Chaney’s shoes.  Prosecutors withheld notes from another expert who said that there was no blood.  They also say that prosecutors elicited false testimony from the co-worker of Chaney who initially told police that Chaney had asked him to tell authorities that he had last been at the victims’ home a week before their murder.  At trial, the co-worker told the jury that Chaney had asked him to be his alibi.  Chaney’s attorneys have filed court papers saying new evidence establishes he is innocent.

“We’re confident that when the reinvestigation is complete, the district attorney’s office will be in a position to formally agree that he is innocent of this crime,” said Julie Less, exoneration attorney for the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, in a statement.

Sources:  Independent  |  Wrongful Convictions Blog



Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark were convicted 20 years ago in Kentucky of the stabbing death of 19-year-old Rhonda Warford.  Her body was dumped in a field called Dead Horse Hollow.  Both men were sentenced to life in prison.  New DNA testing could show that they were innocent all along.  The two men were convicted in 1995 as part of the Satanic ritual murder hysteria that swept the country.

“For over 20 years, Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark have lost much of their adult life serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit,” said Linda A. Smith, supervising attorney for the Kentucky Innocence Project.

The prosecution presented microscopic hair comparison evidence of hairs found at the scene.  They told the jury that they matched Hardin.  They also said that they found a cup at his home that had animal sacrifice blood on it and that it was the “chalice” used in Satanic rituals.  The men had drank blood from it.  At trial, a Louisville detective, Mark Handy, testified that Hardin told him that he’d grown tired of sacrificing animals so he graduated to people.  That detective is currently under investigation for fabricating evidence against Edwin Chandler, who was later exonerated for murder.

A prosecution expert told the jury that despite the prosecutor’s insistence that a fingerprint belonging to Warford found on Clark’s car was “fresh”, there was no way to determine when a fingerprint was deposited.  Fingerprints can remain on surfaces indefinitely. Since the trial, microscopic hair comparisons have come under intense scrutiny scientifically.

In 2013, the FBI publicly declared that all hair testimony that purports a “match” from a known to unknown hair has no scientific basis.

In addition, a jailhouse informant who told the jury that Clark confessed had written a letter to another inmate attempting to recruit him to falsify testimony against Clark and Hardin so they both could get reduced sentences.

The Innocence Project and the Kentucky Innocence Project recently filed a motion stating that DNA testing discredits that evidence and requests that the convictions of Hardin and Clark be vacated.  Hardin has long asserted his innocence and disputed his “confession” to the detective.  He also said at trial, for which the prosecution responded that he was a liar, that the cup found at his house was covered with his blood, not an animal’s.  DNA evidence confirms that it was his blood on the cup.  He had cut himself on the broken glass.  DNA evidence also shows that the hairs found at the scene identifying the men as the killers actually belong to someone else entirely. (more…)

The Baltimore Sun paid tribute to former Innocence Project client Chris Conover, who took his own life in late February.  Conover was 60 years old.  He was free from prison, but never free from post-prison struggles.  He died a free man, but still living under suspicion.  Conover was convicted of taking part in a drug-related double homicide in 1984.  He was sentenced to life in prison.  He spent 18 years wrongfully convicted in a Maryland prison before DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator.  His conviction was vacated in 2003.  DNA from two strands of human hair found at the scene, a key piece of the prosecution’s evidence against him, proved to be someone else’s.

Despite the DNA tests imploding the state’s case against him and numerous alibi witnesses who had seen him at a birthday party at the time of the murders, the state insisted he was guilty. They vowed to retry him, so Conover took an Alford plea (a plea of no contest), in 2003, to armed robbery, in order to prevent the risk of more prison time.  He did not want to await trial in a prison and his attorneys knew that his county had a high conviction rate.  In a no contest plea, a defendant maintains their innocence, but concedes that a jury or judge could be persuaded to convict them.  Lawfully, they are treated as if they were found or pled guilty.  The bargain was not ideal, said Lee Rubin and Kevin Ranlett, attorneys for Conover.  However, Conover was spared the stress and unknowns of a trial and could move on with his life.  Rubin and Ranlett worked the case pro bono for the Innocence Project.

“It would not have been worth it to put my mother and my loved ones through another trial,” Conover told the Sun.

Conover moved back to his hometown and married his high school sweetheart, Susan.  They moved to North Carolina and set up a pet-care business.  The recession took its toll on the family’s finances.  Conover was never officially exonerated and was ineligible for compensation.  His business faltered and he began to suffer from depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

“He knew that, to get help, he needed to commit himself,” Sue told the Sun, “But he didn’t want to be locked up again.”

He never recovered.

“He would do anything for anybody…He couldn’t fight his demons any longer.  He felt like he was disappointing everybody…”