Murder Charges on Two Men Cleared After 30 Years of Imprisonment
Shawn Henning and Ralph Birch are the two men who have been freed from charges of a gruesome murder, which they didn’t commit, after 30 years of imprisonment in New Milford.
The two men now have accused world-famous criminologist Dr. Henry Lee of fabricating evidence and, in the process, have raised new questions about past practices at the state forensic science laboratory. They are asking for a ruling, even before a trial begins, that would hold Lee largely responsible for their imprisonment.
The two claim in the filing that their convictions were based on a made-up blood test that Lee contrived to close a stubborn case that had gone unsolved for years.
The incident happened back in 1985, when a man named Everett Carr was found dead at his daughter’s place. The killers trapped Carr in a narrow hallway, pounded on his head with something heavy and stabbed him 27 times, severing, among other things, including his jugular vein.
The walls were spattered with blood from baseboard to ceiling, with so much pooled on the floor that the police had to build a makeshift bridge to get to the body without tramping through it.
The killers tracked blood through the house and left smudges or droplets on items they handled during what could have been a search for valuables.
The state police detectives who led the investigation at first considered Carr’s death a rage killing because of the violence. But they shifted to the theory that it was a burglary gone wrong, even though the killer or killers left behind cash, jewelry and other easily transportable valuables.
Henning and Birch, then 17 and 18 years old, were the prime suspects at that time as they were a pair of drug abusing, teenage burglars living, packed with everything they owned, in the noisy, stolen Buick enough to accuse them of driving to Carr’s house to kill him.
The crime scene suggested the teens should have been soaked by blood. But the police were confronted by a contradiction as there was not a trace on them, their clothing, the Buick or the clutter in the car.
Henry Lee, a forensic blood expert who ran the state police crime lab identified a stained towel in an upstairs bathroom and said his tests on the light stains proved they were made by blood.
The prosecutor argued later, at trial, that the towel could explain the absence of blood on the teens: They used it to clean up. Henning and Birch were convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 and 55 years in prison, respectively.
The teens lost a succession of appeals before the state’s case collapsed in 2019. The allegedly blood-stained towel was the reason. The state Supreme Court reversed the murder convictions, concluding based on the new evidence that Lee had no way of knowing what was on the towel because neither he nor anyone in his lab tested it.
When the stains finally were tested in 2008, part of a last-ditch appeal by Henning and Birch and the result showed they weren’t made by blood at all, but some inorganic substance.
The decision made clear the court saw no evidence Lee’s testimony about the towel was intentionally false or anything other than a mistaken recollection.
Now new questions about the case have arisen in recent years as Henning and Birch, supported by public interest lawyers devoted to reversing questionable convictions, dug into the record, retested evidence and reinvestigated.
At the center of the controversy is a bathroom towel that Lee said was stained with blood and Henning and Birch say was not.
In their new federal filing, Henning and Birch added to the Supreme Court’s reservations about the convictions by arguing that, under intense pressure to close a stalled investigation Lee fabricated a positive result for what’s known as a presumptive tetramethylbenzidine test on the towel.
Lawyers for Henning and Birch, who are suing the state for millions of dollars in wrongful imprisonment damages, also complain in the federal filing that Lee wrongly removed crime scene photographs, including images of the towel, from the state laboratory.
They claim Lee acknowledged in two recent depositions that he considered 140 crime scene photographs to be his “personal” property and moved them to his home.
Those photographs were never made available to the two men until 37 years after the murder, including during the decades they spent pressing appeals, disputing evidence about the towel and calling for further investigation.
Recently in an interview, Lee have claimed the allegations as ‘false accusations’. He said, “Actually this case, I exonerate them. You talk about the pressure of solving. I exonerate. Because they sent me the suspects’ clothing. The shoes. I did the test. I say no blood was found. They even send some car parts. We examine the car. Negative. If I wanted to convict these guys wrongly, I could easily say clothes test positive. I just don’t understand. I just try to speak for the victim.”
But lawyers for Henning and Birch said they have evidence, including deposition testimony from Lee and others, that suggests Lee’s statements are not persuasive.
In their legal filing, Henning and Birch assert that two witnesses, designated by Lee as experts in his behalf said in depositions that they are not aware of any evidence, including photographs and crime lab records, that corroborates Lee’s claims that he or anyone else ever performed tests on the towel.
Brooke Kammrath, an expert in criminalistics and crime scene investigation at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science, where Lee teaches at the University of New Haven testified that there is “no written documentation or photographic” evidence that he tested the towel for blood.
Michael Proto, a state prosecutor who represented the state during appeals by Henning and Birch, said in a deposition that there “just wasn’t anything” to support Lee’s assertions. He added that the Supreme Court had been misinformed and reached erroneous conclusions when it questioned Lee’s work on the Carr murder. There is no documentation of his tests on the towel because the lab’s master case file apparently has been misplaced.
Lee said that the problem started with an inexperienced laboratory technician who after 30 years says that she tested the towel which showed a negative result. He added that that he did not remove any official crime scene photographs from his laboratory and he took the photographs kept at his house as part of a personal record to document his work.
In addition to Lee, Henning and Birch are suing state and New Milford police officers involved in the investigation. However all of them have denied wrongdoing and are contesting the suit.