A renowned forensic scientist is being sued by two men who spent decades in prison for a murder they did not commit.
In 1989, two teenagers, then-17-year-old Shawn Henning and 18-year-old Ricky Birch were convicted of murdering 65-year-old Everett Carr in particularly gruesome and bloody fashion.
What looked like a major problem for the state was the fact that neither defendant had even a little bit of blood on them after allegedly slitting the victim’s throat and stabbing him 47 times. There was plenty of blood everywhere else in Carr’s daughter’s house. Thanks to the testimony of Dr. Henry Lee, the state was able to overcome that hurdle. But as it turns out, the lawsuit says, Lee’s testimony was incorrect.
In 2019, Henning and Birch had their convictions overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The problem? Lee said a towel had been tested for blood – and this bolstered the state’s argument that the two men had somehow been able to clean away every trace of blood from themselves and their car after the brutal slaying. In reality, the court noted, Lee had not tested the towel at all.
“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. “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.”
In the interim, as the two innocent men languished in prison, Lee more than made a name for himself. He was previously the director of the state police forensic laboratory, and is since retired. He was also the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Safety for two years. His testimony has featured in various high-profile true crime causes célèbre, as well as cases of the JonBenét Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, and Scott Peterson. He is also the founder of the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science, which is affiliated with the University of New Haven.
In a recent motion for summary judgment, Henning and Birch are asking a federal judge to hold Lee legally culpable for their false imprisonment – accusing him of fabricating evidence for law enforcement.
“There can be no genuine dispute that Dr. Lee fabricated evidence that he conducted a positive blood test on a towel at the scene of the murder of Everett Carr in 1985,” the 2-page motion reads. “Plaintiffs Henning and Birch spent more than thirty years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of Mr. Carr’s murder, in part based on Dr. Lee’s fabrication. The Connecticut Supreme Court vacated their convictions because Dr. Lee’s claim that he conducted a positive blood test on the towel was ‘false or misleading’ and deprived them of fair trials. Because Dr. Lee’s claim that he performed a positive blood test on the towel is contradicted by his own deposition testimony, by his own physical evidence and by his own experts, no jury could reasonably believe that he tested the towel and Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment as to liability on their fabrication of evidence causes of action against him.”
Lee insists, however, that he made no errors in the case. After the two men were exonerated, Lee gave a press conference.
“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 said in comments reported by the Daily Beast. “This is the first case that I have to defend myself.”
Additionally, Lee claims the towel was, in fact, tested, just not under lab conditions, and at the scene of the crime.
In a recent federal filing obtained by the Hartford Courant, that has yet to be placed on the public docket, Henning and Birch claim Lee fabricated the results of that tetramethylbenzidine test.
“With no probable cause, the investigation at a dead end and the victim’s family putting pressure on law enforcement, the defendants in this case, including the state’s lead criminalist, Dr. Henry Lee, began fabricating evidence to ‘solve’ the ‘botched burglary’ homicide,” the latest filing says. “They fabricated evidence to fit the ‘botched burglary’ theory so the implausible became plausible.”
Lee recently spoke to the paper to defend himself and his work.
“Actually this case, I exonerate them,” he told the Courant. “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.”
[Image via screengrab/WVIT]
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]