WEST HAVEN — Forensic scientist Henry Lee, renowned for decades as one of the nation’s top criminologists, angrily denied Monday that he did anything wrong in the case of two men whose 1989 murder convictions have been thrown out by the state Supreme Court.
“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,” said Lee, who appeared at a press conference at the University of New Haven Monday morning to defend his record. “This is the first case that I have to defend myself.”
In a unanimous decision released Friday afternoon, the court ordered new trials for Sean Henning and Ralph Birch, who were convicted for the murder of 65-year-old Everett Carr in New Milford in 1985. They were convicted partially based on the testimony of Lee, who told jurors that a towel in the bathroom of Carr’s home had a spot on it that he had tested and found was “consistent with blood.” DNA testings decades later determined that there was no blood on the towel and that it had never been tested for blood.
Lee said he didn’t testify inaccurately and that in a field test at the time, the results showed that it was likely blood. Lee is the director of the Forensic Research and Training Center at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science and Distinguished Chair Professor in Forensic Science at the University of New Haven. On Monday, Lee had a slide presentation about his accomplishment and the cases he has been involved in.
“To say that I didn’t do any test is totally wrong. I didn’t say it was definitely blood,” Lee said. He said he did a field test on the towel found in the second-floor bathroom and said that it came back bright blue, indicating it was blood. He said two other tests should have been done at the laboratory, but he didn’t explain why they weren’t done in the Carr case.
Lee’s statements at the press conference Monday are contradicted by his court testimony in 1989.
According to a court transcript, during his testimony during Henning’s trial, Lee said that the “reddish color smear” on the towel was "consistent with blood.”
During his press conference, Lee also criticized work done by a scientist at the state forensic laboratory who testified in a court hearing in 2008 that the towel had not been properly tested after the murder. He called her testimony “inaccurate" and “misinformation.”
After the murder occurred on Dec. 1, 1985, Lee said he spent two days at the scene collecting evidence. He said that is where he did the field test on the towel, although there is no record of that at the laboratory.
The towel was tested by the state laboratory in April 2008. Those tests showed the spot on the towel wasn’t blood at all.
The towel with the spot on it had been a key component of then-Assistant State’s Attorney David Shepack’s final argument to the jury in Henning’s case, where he cited the blood on the towel as evidence the men used it to clean their car to make sure no blood was found in it.
Shepack, who is now the Litchfield State’s Attorney, hasn’t commented on the court’s ruling. It will be up to his office to decide whether the two men should again face a trial.
Henning and Birch spent decades in jail. Henning has been released on probation. Birch is incarcerated at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers.
"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,'' Justice Richard Palmer wrote in a 23-page decision.
"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,'' Palmer wrote.
The court ruled that if the jury had known Lee had never tested the towel and that his testimony was inaccurate it would have impacted the way they judged the rest of his testimony.
“If the jury had known that Lee’s testimony about finding blood on the bathroom towel was incorrect, that knowledge might well have caused it to question the reliability of his other testimony,” Palmer wrote. “If that had occurred, the state’s entire case against the petitioner could very well have collapsed. In light of the foregoing, we conclude that the state’s failure to correct Lee’s testimony that there was blood on the bathroom towel deprived the petitioner of a fair trial.”