Connecticut to pay $25m settlement to men wrongly convicted in 1985 murder

<span>Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP</span>
Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP

Connecticut has agreed to pay a $25m settlement to two men who spent decades in prison for a brutal murder they did not commit, and whose convictions were partly based on evidence presented by a forensic scientist who worked on some of America’s most notorious criminal investigations and trials.

Ralph “Ricky” Birch and Shawn Henning were convicted for the 1985 murder of Everett Carr after Dr Henry Lee – whose name would later become widely known in connection with the OJ Simpson, Lana Clarkson and JonBenét Ramsey cases – testified about “blood” evidence on a towel and how blood from the victim’s wounds had spattered in an “uninterrupted” fashion.

But no forensic evidence existed linking Birch and Henning to the murder despite its exceptionally gory execution. And no blood was found on the defendants’ clothes or in their car. The crime scene included hairs and more than 40 fingerprints, but none matched the two men. Lee still testified that it was possible for the men to have committed the crime without getting blood on them.

Henning and Birch, who were 17 and 18 respectively at the time of the murder, were convicted in 1989 and incarcerated for three decades before the Connecticut supreme court overturned their convictions in 2019 after several witnesses recanted their testimony. The charges against the two men were dismissed the following year.

“They say the wheels of justice turn slowly,” Birch told the Hartford Courant. That’s a little bit of an understatement. They took 30 years of my life and I’m not going to give them any more by being angry.”

The wrongly convicted men subsequently filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit naming Lee, then with the state’s forensic laboratory, eight police investigators and the town of New Milford.

“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 after the convictions were overturned.

But in July, Lee was found liable for fabricating evidence in the case by a federal judge who found there was no evidence that Lee had conducted any tests for blood on a towel that he said in testimony was a smear “identified to be blood” and which prosecutors had said could have been touched by the killers while cleaning up.

“Other than stating that he performed the test, however, the record contains no evidence that any such test was performed,” the US district judge Victor Bolden ruled. “And there is evidence in this record that the tests actually conducted did not indicate the presence of blood.”

Lee, now 84, shot to fame in 1995 when he testified at the trial of OJ Simpson that the chain of blood evidence had been broken, and later served as a consultant in the unsolved 1996 murder investigation of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey; the 2004 murder trial of Scott Peterson, accused of killing his pregnant wife Laci Peterson; and the 2007 murder trial of the record producer Phil Spector after which he was accused of taking evidence – a broken nail belonging to victim – from the crime scene.

The famed forensic scientist, who is now professor emeritus at the University of New Haven’s Henry C Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, gave an interview in July denying that he had fabricated evidence against the men.

“I have no motive nor reason to fabricate evidence,” he wrote in an email statement to the Associated Press.

“My chemical testing of the towel played no direct role in implicating Mr Birch and Mr Henning or anyone else as suspects in this crime. Further, my scientific testimony at their trial included exculpatory evidence, such as a negative finding of blood on their clothing that served to exonerate them,” Lee added.

A spokesperson for University of New Haven said it would not comment on the matter, “out of respect for the legal process and those involved”.