Sunday, July 23, 2023

Renowned forensic scientist Henry Lee liable for fabricating evidence

Famed forensic scientist Henry Lee was found liable for fabricating evidence in a murder case that sent two Connecticut men to prison for decades for a crime they did not commit, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Ralph “Ricky” Birch and Shawn Henning were convicted in the Dec. 1, 1985, slaying of Everett Carr, based in part on testimony about what Lee said were bloodstains on a towel found in the 65-year-old’s home in New Milford, 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) southwest of Hartford.

A judge vacated the felony murder convictions in 2020, and the men filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit naming Lee, eight police investigators and the town of New Milford.

The ruling Friday sends the case against the police and the town to trial. In granting a motion for summary judgement against Lee, the only outstanding issue for a jury in his case will be the amount of damages.

Lee, the former head of the state’s forensic laboratory and now a professor emeritus at the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Lee, 84, rocketed to fame after his testimony in the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial, in which he questioned the handling of blood evidence. He also served as a consultant in other high-profile investigations, including the 1996 slaying of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado; the 2004 murder trial of Scott Peterson, who was accused of killing his pregnant wife Laci; and the 2007 murder trial of record producer Phil Spector.

When Birch and Henning were put on trial in 1989, jurors heard about an extremely bloody crime scene. Carr had been stabbed 27 times, had his throat cut and suffered seven blows to the head.

No forensic evidence existed linking Birch and Henning to the crime. No blood was found on their clothes or in their car. The crime scene included hairs and more than 40 fingerprints, but none matched the two men.

Prosecutors presented evidence from Lee — not yet famous — that it was possible for the assailants to avoid getting much blood on them.

Lee also testified that a towel, which later was suggested could have been touched by the killers while cleaning up, was found in a bathroom near the crime the scene with stains that he tested and were consistent with blood.

Tests done after the trial, when the men were appealing their convictions, showed the substance was not blood.

In his ruling Friday, which was first reported by The Hartford Courant, U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden ruled that Lee presented no evidence to back up his testimony.

“Other than stating that he performed the test, however, the record contains no evidence that any such test was performed,” the judge wrote. “In fact, as plaintiffs noted, Dr. Lee’s own experts concluded that there is no ‘written documentation or photographic’ evidence that Dr. Lee performed the TMB blood test. And there is evidence in this record that the tests actually conducted did not indicate the presence of blood.”

The judge also ruled that Lee failed to properly use an immunity defense that could have shielded him from damages and was no longer eligible to use that argument.

Elizabeth Benton, a spokesperson for Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, whose office defended Lee and the police detectives in the case, said it was reviewing the decision and evaluating the next steps.

Birch served more than 30 years of a 55-year sentence for felony murder before being released in 2019 after a judge ordered a new trial. Henning, who was 17 when the crime occurred, was granted probation in 2018.

After their convictions were vacated in 2020, Lee defended his conduct in the investigation.

“In my 57-year career, I have investigated over 8,000 cases and never, ever was accused of any wrongdoing or for testifying intentionally wrong,” Lee told a throng of reporters. “This is the first case that I have to defend myself.”

Lee’s work in several other cases has come under scrutiny, including in the murder case against Spector, in which he was accused of taking evidence from the crime scene.

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