CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
How Many Murder Cases Did Celeb Forensic Scientist Henry Lee Botch?
Henry Lee testified in some of America’s biggest murder cases, from O.J. Simpson to JonBenet. But he’s been accused of botching evidence in multiple trials.
Before he became a true-crime celebrity, forensic scientist Henry Lee took the stand at a wildly bloody murder trial in Connecticut. It was spring of 1989 and the then-50-year-old Chinese-American hadn’t yet worked on his splashiest cases, from O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey to Scott Peterson.
In the Connecticut trial, Lee faced a difficult task. As the star witness paid by the state, he was asked to back up the prosecution’s story that two homeless teenagers had butchered 65-year-old father Everett Carr—slitting his throat and stabbing him 27 times at his daughter’s home—without getting any blood on themselves, or leaving behind a shred of physical evidence.
Lee wore a crisp suit as he took a seat next to the judge. When questioned, he testified that a reddish-brown stain found on a towel in the bathroom was “identified to be blood.” Despite the violent and messy nature of the attack—which left walls and floors in the home soaked in blood—he said it was possible that the killers had fled without a drop of blood on their clothing.
His testimony bolstered the state’s claim that 17-year-old Shawn Henning and 18-year-old Ricky Birch had used the towel to clean themselves up after a “burglary gone bad.” It played a huge role in convicting the friends, who were sentenced to decades behind bars.
The problem is, it wasn’t true. There was in fact no blood on the towel, and it had never actually been lab-tested, the Connecticut Supreme Court recently concluded. The ruling could lead to the exoneration of both men, who are in their fifties. The case features bombshell new DNA evidence—possibly pointing to a female killer—and witnesses who have since recanted, including a jailhouse snitch and a friend of Henning’s who testified he’d confessed to being at the home.
Last week, the court tossed out the convictions for both men and granted them new trials after 30 years, citing Lee’s incorrect testimony and blaming prosecutors for failing to correct it.
Reached by phone, Dennis Santore, the now-retired DA who put away Henning and Birch, recently admitted “It was a fishy case.”
He said, “It was tough putting it together because it was circumstantial. But we did the best we could with what we had... We didn’t do much testing back then.” Asked if he stands by the evidence, he said, “I would have to, if I put it on [trial].”
A few days after Henning and Birch were granted new trials, Lee held a press conference insisting he made no errors. “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 told a throng of reporters. “This is the first case that I have to defend myself.”
But Lee’s history of problems with evidence—intentional or not—doesn’t begin and end with Henning and Birch. The 81-year-old world-renowned forensic scientist—who has appeared on dozens of crime TV shows and documentaries—has allegedly hidden evidence or given incorrect testimony in at least three other cases, potentially sending the wrong men to prison and allowing guilty ones to walk free, according to court documents and other legal sources.
The cases include:
* The Murder of L.A. Actress Lana Clarkson. Lee hid or destroyed a white object—likely an acrylic fingernail—found at the scene of Clarkson’s death by gunshot, a judge ruled in 2007. Lee had been hired by the legal defense of iconic record producer Phil Spector, who was charged with, and eventually convicted of, Clarkson’s second-degree murder. Sara Caplan, then a defense attorney working with Lee, admitted to the judge that she saw Lee take the evidence, which he then failed to hand over to prosecution, according to the ruling.
* The Murder of Young Mother Janet Myers. In 1990, Lee testified that 33-year-old Kerry Myers’ pants were spotted with his dead wife’s blood type, backing up the prosecution’s claim that he and a friend beat her to death with a bat. Both men were convicted. But Lee’s testimony was later called into question by a detective who handled the case and insists Janet’s blood type was never found on Myers’ pants.
* The Disappearance and Murder of Teenager Joyce Stochmal. In 1988, after Connecticut teen Joyce Stochmal went missing and turned up dead, Lee testified that a brown crusty substance, found on a knife belonging to 29-year-old suspect David Weinberg, was blood. Lee said there was no way to know if the blood belonged to a human, but Weinberg was still convicted. Yet lab tests had in fact been done by the time of the trial—and they revealed it was definitively not human blood, according to a petition for a new trial filed on behalf of Weinberg in 2017. His lawyer, Darcy McGraw, claims Lee “knew or should have known” it wasn’t human blood.
Lee has a defense for each alleged screw-up. In the Stochmal case, he insists the “lawyers don’t understand the science”—and that a “chemical presumptive test” taken at the crime scene “tested positive” for blood. In the Carr case, he claims he never testified that the substance on the towel conclusively was blood, only that the same type of field test showed it was “was consistent with blood.” (Testimony from back then, however, shows he went a step further, saying the “smear was identified to be blood,” according to The Washington Post.) In the Janet Myers case, he contends the police officer is mistaken about the blood type found on Kerry Myers’ pants. And in the Clarkson case, he insists he offered the possible fingernail to the prosecution and “they didn’t want it.”
In the years since these cases, Lee has become a rock star in the world of true crime. He’s appeared on the hit Netflix documentary The Staircase and dozens of Investigation Discovery-style programs, and he also scored his own show, Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee. He’s won prestigious awards, including the Medal of Justice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Science and Engineer Association. And he founded the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science—where his methods are being taught to future generations of criminalists.
But critics, including a former colleague and legal opponents, say he may simply care more about scoring legal victories than the truth. “His attitude is extremely dangerous in the criminal-justice system,” said McGraw, who is also the executive director of the Connecticut Innocence Project. “His testimony has led to some very unfair and unjust results. These are horrible cases—and there are big reasons to believe some of the men involved are innocent.”
Former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden now says Lee “stretched” the truth when he testified on behalf of the former football Hall-of-Famer’s defense team in 1995. Back then, Lee told jurors “something [was] wrong” with a blood sample placed into evidence, boosting the defense’s claim that cops had tampered with it. “I didn’t think it was true then—and I don’t think it’s true today,” Darden said of Lee’s testimony. “It was bullshit, not science.”
Kerry Myers, whom Lee helped send to prison for decades, is still seething. “Henry Lee is caught up in his own ego and loves being a forensic expert to the stars. I don’t think he cares about people—they’re objects he can use to promote himself,” said Myers, 62, who was set free two years ago. “It’s frustrating that he’s still doing it, and nobody is questioning him.”
In May 2013, Lee gave an auditorium packed with graduating students a piece of advice. “You must have a winner’s attitude,” he said at Manchester Community College in Connecticut. “The loser always says, ‘There is no way.’ The winner always finds a way.”
Lee likes to stress the importance of winning in his speeches and writings. As the 11th of 13 children, raised without a father by an immigrant mother, success and ambition set him apart from the pack.
Born in Kiangsu province, China in November 1938, Lee fled with his family to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. His father, traveling to the island separately, died when his ship sank in January 1949. Lee was 10 years old.
As a young man, Lee was hired by the Taipei Police Department, where he worked his way up to the rank of captain. In 1965, he moved to the U.S. with just $65, and graduated from John Jay College with a degree in forensic science seven years later. He went on to get his doctorate at New York University.
After graduation, he volunteered his then-newfangled crime-lab skills to Connecticut prosecutors, but nobody would take him up on it. Instead, a public defender, Charlie Gill, gave him his first job. “I went to see him and I could barely understand a word he said,” Gill said in an Los Angeles Times profile piece several years ago, referring to Lee’s thick accent.
He asked Lee to work a salacious case. In it, two men were accused of sexually assaulting a woman they had met at a bar in Litchfield, Connecticut, in the mid-1970s. It had been nicknamed the “panties in a tree case” in reference to where the victim’s undergarments were found. As the star witness at the trial, Lee gave dramatic testimony. He said seminal fluid belonging to at least four other men was discovered on the woman’s underwear. In the end, the men on trial were found not guilty.
Lee’s career took off soon after. In 1979, he landed a job as the director of the Connecticut state crime lab, and eventually offered expertise on blood type, spatter, microscopic hair particles, and fibers. Back then, forensic scientists responded to crime scenes alongside cops and EMTs. “We got called in the middle of the night, on holidays and weekends, and we had to respond,” Lee told me. “It was not an easy job.”
On the stand, jurors found him credible and even charming. He was quick with a joke, or a moment of levity and could explain complex theories in simple ways.
“I don’t think I ever met a juror who didn’t find him persuasive,” said one former Connecticut court clerk, who shepherded jurors around during many of Lee’s cases. “He employed science in a way that made sense and he came across as a bona fide scientist. He always seemed very well organized,” he said. “He really impressed me.”
Lee’s first major case was the horrific Helle Crafts “wood chipper” murder of 1986. It centered on a Danish flight attendant whose airline pilot husband, Richard Crafts, slaughtered her and tossed her body into a wood chipper. Cops found human tissue along with Helle’s hair and blood type in a nearby lake. Lee, who led the forensic investigation, helped determine that her remains had gone through the chipper. Richard was sentenced to 50 years in prison, and the case went down in history as Connecticut’s first murder conviction without a victim’s body, thanks in big part to Lee.
In 1995, Lee shot to international fame when he appeared as the star forensics witness during the televised O.J. Simpson trial, where he challenged the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of blood samples. During the trial, Lee testified that blood was likely placed onto Simpson’s socks while they were lying flat, rather than when someone was wearing them. He said a critical blood stain was improperly handled, creating a smear on a paper evidence holder, and bolstering the defense’s claim that cops tampered with the still-wet sample. “The only opinion I can give under these circumstances is something [is] wrong,” Lee said.
Darden, who was then Marcia Clark’s right-hand man in the case, claims O.J.’s lawyers told Lee to use the memorable-but-vague phrase during a court break. “It was a stretch… He shouldn’t have said anything up there that wasn’t based in science,” Darden told me. “But he has a whole shtick and juries like him.” Indeed, some jurors later called Lee’s testimony a major factor in Simpson’s acquittal.
Lee was soon working some of the most sensational cases of the era. He helped investigators with the case of JonBenet Ramsey, a 6-year-old beauty-pageant contestant found beaten and strangled to death in her Colorado home. He spent hours with the defense team of Scott Peterson, a California businessman who was convicted of murdering his eight-months-pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn child, examining the remains of her decapitated body, and taking tissue samples.
Several years later, Lee testified on behalf of accused toddler-killer Casey Anthony, which helped lead to the Florida mom’s acquittal in 2011. He helped investigators on the case of Elizabeth Smart, the abducted 14-year-old Utah girl, leading to the conviction of Brian David Mitchell. He also testified on behalf of novelist Michael Peterson, who was convicted of beating his wife to death near the staircase of their North Carolina home. (The author and subject of the documentary The Staircase was later granted a new trial and took an Alford plea.) And Lee worked for the defense team of Michael Skakel, a Kennedy family relative accused of brutally murdering teenager Martha Moxley.
But Lee’s credibility wasn’t challenged until 2007, as a little-known subplot in one of the year’s most attention-grabbing murder trials—the shooting of actress Lana Clarkson.
Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson
On Feb. 3, 2003, Lana Clarkson, a striking 6-foot-tall actress, was shot in the face at famed music producer Phil Spector’s mansion. Earlier in the night, Spector—who had made records with John Lennon and George Harrison—picked up the 40-year-old former B-movie star in a limo at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, where she worked.
An hour after they got back to Spector’s place, the driver heard a gunshot. “I think I just shot her,” Spector wailed, according to an arrest affidavit.
Later, he insisted Clarkson had “committed accidental suicide” when she “kissed a gun” and it discharged after a night of drinking. Lee soon began working for Spector’s defense team.
While combing through the murder scene, Lee picked up part of an “acrylic fingernail,” placed it in a vial and left, according to testimony from two of Lee’s former colleagues, which was reported by the L.A. Times.
In May 2007, during Spector’s trial, Judge Larry Paul Fidler ruled that Lee failed to hand the flat white object over to prosecutors—and instead hid or destroyed it, according to reports at the time. The evidence was key, prosecutors said, because it proved Clarkson’s hand couldn’t have been on the gun when she died, ruling out the suicide defense.
In the end, a mistrial was declared due to a hung jury. But Spector was convicted of second-degree murder in a second trial in April 2009.
“Lee got his ass kicked on that case. He thought he was a little too powerful,” said Stanley White, a former Spector defense investigator at the scene that day, who testified he saw Lee take the nail.
White, who is also a former sheriff's homicide investigator, said Lee was cavalier about the evidence.
“He said, ‘I think I found some tissue.’ I got down on my hands and knees and I said, ‘That’s not tissue, that’s a piece of a fingernail.’ He said, ‘You need glasses’ and I said, ‘The hell I do.’”
White added, “For whatever reason, people thought he was the greatest forensic guy on the planet. But from my experience, he was a moron.”
It may have simply been a mistake—as opposed to a shrewd move—but it should have been a career-stopper either way, White said. “No police department or federal agency should work with you after that,” he said. “I thought nobody would hire him.”
Lee now contends the object was a piece of thread. He claims he offered it to the defense and the prosecution and neither side wanted it. “It became a moot issue at the trial,” he said.
Lee’s misstep was overshadowed by the more lurid parts of the Spector trial, which was splashed across television sets nationally. His blunder got little media coverage, and so he kept getting hired.
To this day, he’s highly regarded, even by some people who worked the Spector case. Sara Caplan—the former Spector defense lawyer who testified that she saw Lee put the missing evidence in a vial—is still singing his praises.
“The only thing I can say about Dr. Henry Lee is that I have the utmost respect for him as a forensic criminalist and as a human being,” Caplan told me recently without elaborating. “He is one of the most brilliant men with whom I have had the opportunity to work.”
David Weinberg and Joyce Stochmal
On the night Joyce Stochmal went missing in August 1984, she ate a seafood dinner with her family and packed a Nike gym bag with overnight clothes. The petite 19-year-old worked at a dog kennel and sometimes slept there. She was last seen walking on the side of a road near the Housatonic River in Connecticut.
Three people on a fishing trip spotted her body floating in Lake Zoar, a nearby reservoir, a few days later. She had been beaten and stabbed 17 times.
Months later, cops arrested David Weinberg, a 26-year-old printing shop worker and car enthusiast from the blue-collar town of Seymour, just north of where Stochmal was last seen.
Weinberg said he didn’t know Stochmal. But cops zeroed in on him after his girlfriend reported he was “acting funny” and may have been involved in Stochmal’s death. (His girlfriend suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, according to Weinberg’s petition for a new trial, filed in January 2017.)
His girlfriend told cops that she and Weinberg had waded across the Pomperaug River to a burn site on the day Stochmal vanished, according to the court documents. They used her statement to link him to the smoldering pit, where cops said charred clothing from Stochmal’s bag were found. Weinberg’s motive, prosecutors claimed, was a sexual assault gone awry. But there was zero physical evidence to back up that theory, according to Weinberg’s lawyers.
“They had nothing significant against him. In this particular case, an extremely powerful guy, known as a ‘rock ’em sock ’em’ prosecutor, had asked for the death penalty, ” said Weinberg’s lawyer, Darcy McGraw. “Then Henry Lee, with all of his storied credentials, came in.”
At the trial, Lee testified that blood was found on a knife that belonged to Weinberg. Asked whether it was human blood, Lee said on the stand there was no way to know because the sample was insufficient. He also testified that three “unusually fine” hairs consistent with Stochmal’s were discovered in the trunk of Weinberg’s car. His testimony helped convict Weinberg, who was sentenced to 60 years behind bars.
But an investigation, launched decades later by the Connecticut Innocence Project’s post-conviction unit, recently revealed there was in fact no human blood on Weinberg’s knife. What’s more, investigators discovered lab sheets that showed “it was definitively known” at the time of the trial that the substance “was not human blood,” according to Weinberg’s petition for a new trial. Lee had lab notes “in front of him” during the 1988 trial that clearly stated the substance on the knife was not human blood, according to McGraw.
Lee fired back, saying by email, “Every [lab] test was negative (no results). Therefore, I cannot tell the species of the blood.” He didn’t address the claim that he had lab notes at the trial that stated otherwise.
“If you’re on a jury and Henry Lee—the ‘world’s leading criminologist’—comes in and says, ‘Here are these hairs and here’s this blood and this is what it means,’ that’s one thing the jury can hang its hat on because it's quote unquote-science,” McGraw said. “But he knew or should have known at the time of trial it was not human blood.”
Lee insists that a “chemical presumptive” test was taken at the crime scene and that it showed the substance on the knife “tested positive for blood.” He claims he later did a “species test” in a lab to determine if it was animal blood and it yielded no results. He said he couldn’t have known the substance on the knife wasn’t human blood because the sample was inadequate. Still, he admits, the lab tests never showed it was human blood, either.
At the trial, he said lawyers didn’t press him to get specific about the difference between lab testing and less accurate field testing. “I only can answer what they ask, I can’t volunteer information,” he said of the testimony. “I tried to be honest.”
As it turns out, his testimony about Stochmal’s hair ended up being wrong, too, McGraw said at a 2017 court hearing. Further testing revealed that two of the three hairs found in Weinberg’s car were not actually the murder victim’s, and the test on the third was inconclusive, she said.
Other powerful new evidence includes a confession that was never given to Weinberg’s defense attorney. In 2010, McGraw was going through boxes of records on the Weinberg case when she came across a police report. It noted that three weeks after Stochmal was slain, a female hitchhiker confessed to cops that she had killed her for money, according to Weinberg’s petition for a new trial.
McGraw, along with an investigator and the Connecticut Innocence Project’s then-director, later met in person with the detective who took her statement all those years ago. He admitted that he never turned the woman’s statement over to the prosecutor in charge of Weinberg’s case, the petition for a new trial states. It wasn’t necessary, the cop told them, because the woman was “mentally unstable,” according to the court documents. He said he didn’t “believe her” and thought her confession didn’t fit “with what he believed the facts to be.”
But the hitchhiker knew details of the case that hadn’t been reported to the public—that Stochmal had been stabbed with a six-inch knife and that her purse was filled with rocks before it was tossed the river, according to Weinberg’s petition for new trial. Nevertheless, cops let her walk free. It’s unclear where she is today.
The court didn’t respond to Weinberg’s petition for a new trial. Ultimately, his lawyers and Waterbury county State Attorney Maureen Platt reached an agreement to modify his sentence to “time served.” The deal states that neither party admits “that the claims or defences of the other has merit.” While his conviction still stands, Weinberg was freed from prison two years ago at age 58.
But the ripple effect of Lee’s misleading testimony in the Stochmal case may be immeasurable, McGraw said.
“We have no way of knowing the extent of the effect he has had over the years,” she said. “The criminal justice system runs on guilty pleas, and if you have Henry Lee working cases for the prosecution, [the accused are] going to be more likely to plead [guilty],” she added—whether or not they are actually innocent.
Kerry and Janet Myers
In February 1984, a young mom was found beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat inside her suburban New Orleans home. Janet Myers, a fiery 26-year-old aspiring writer, had been bludgeoned in the head while her 2-year-old son, Ryan, sat in a high chair nearby.
Her husband, Kerry Myers, and his high-school pal William Fontanille were soon charged with her murder. Each blamed the other for her death. Myers said he walked in on Fontanille attacking his wife, sparking a fight between the two men. Fontanille told cops he had sex with Janet, and that Kerry Myers had killed her and was going to try to pin it on him.
At first, only Fontanille was charged with her murder and Kerry Myers—who had called 911 screaming, “He killed my wife!”—served as the star witness in his trial. When it ended in a hung jury, prosecutors opted to charge both men. This time, they claimed the friends had planned to kill Janet and Fontanille's ex-wife, Susan.
At the second trial, the prosecution’s story was bolstered by Lee, who testified that spots of Type A blood—Janet’s type—were found on Kerry Myers’ pants, according to court documents. A jury found Fontanille guilty of manslaughter and he was hit with a 21-year sentence in 1990. Myers was shocked when a judge convicted him of second-degree murder, and sentenced him to life in prison the same year.
But decades later, Lee’s testimony was challenged by a former Jefferson Parish detective who responded to the crime scene and handled the case. In a letter to the Louisiana Board of Pardons & Parole, Robert Masson claimed the only blood type ever found on Kerry Myers pants was actually Type B, which in fact matched Fontanille’s blood type.
“I was never convinced Myers was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted,” Masson wrote in September 2013. “This case still causes me to have concerns. It is the only case I have ever handled where I have doubt about the guilt of someone.” Even Janet’s mother, who testified on behalf of Myers at his parole hearing in 2013, wasn’t convinced.
Lee contends, “If results say it was consistent [with type A], I report that faithfully … I did not frame somebody.” He added that Myers’ pants were blue jeans, which he said have “antigens” that sometimes yield “incorrect Type B blood results.”
But Myers calls Lee’s testimony stunningly misleading. He said Lee used the words “spots” and “spatter” interchangeably, which is deceptive because the former can be chalked up to transfer stains from the bat, which he said Fontanille used to attack him after Janet. The latter, however, was used during the trial to show Myers was near Janet when she was beaten.
“He was going to come up with the conclusion the state wanted regardless of what the evidence showed,” said Myers, who has maintained his innocence all along. “He ambiguously twisted things. He started with theoretical—‘they could have done this’ or ‘they could have done that’—and he went way outside of his scope of expertise,” Myers said.
In December 2016, Kerry Myers’ life sentence was commuted by Gov. John Bel Edwards after he filed a petition for actual innocence and former detective Masson, along with Janet’s family members, backed him up at a parole hearing. He was set free based on “good time credits” after roughly three decades behind bars.
John Mamoulides, the former District Attorney who tried the case, didn’t return requests for comment.
Not long ago, Myers came across a book Lee had written, Dr. Henry Lee’s Forensic Files: Five Famous Cases, which prominently featured a section on his wife’s murder. Myers says the book fudged the truth and included inaccuracies about his personal life along with Janet’s funeral.
“This guy is still saying outlandish things to make himself look like a forensics superhero,” Myers said. “It ticks me off in a huge way.”
Lee claims he only handled the “scientific explanations” in the book and that his co-author is responsible for those parts of the book that Myers claims are incorrect. His co-author, Jerry Labriola, agreed that he was responsible for the “prose of the story” but said he couldn’t remember that section of the book off-hand.
Shawn Henning, Ralph “Ricky” Birch, and Everette Carr
On Dec. 1, 1985, Shawn Henning and Ralph Birch were living in a stolen brown Buick Regal with a busted muffler. The teens had been burglarizing houses in the semi-rural town of New Milford, Connecticut, in the days leading up to 65-year-old Everette Carr’s murder.
When police arrived at his daughter’s tidy white home, Carr was found with his throat slit from one side of his neck to the opposite ear. His jugular had been severed. He was stabbed dozens of times with a kitchen knife, and there were large gashes in his head.
Blood was pooled up around his corpse, smeared and spattered on walls, nearly up to the ceiling. A set of bloody shoeprints led to a bedroom on the first floor, where a dresser appeared ransacked.
During the investigation, cops learned Henning and Birch had been breaking into homes nearby. After interviewing neighbors, who said they heard a loud muffler, they zeroed in on the teens, who admitted to the burglaries but insisted they hadn’t killed Carr.
“Immediately, we became the prime suspects (understandably) and any evidence that didn’t fit that theory was quickly abandoned with minimal investigation (not so understandably),” Birch wrote in a recent letter from prison.
They were both charged with murder, but the evidence was never rock-solid. Dozens of samples were taken from the floor, walls, and other objects, including a cigar box, Carr’s underwear, and a broken-off piece of the murder weapon. But not a single piece of physical evidence—blood, hair, or fibers—found at the home belonged to the teens, according to lab tests at the time.
The state also tested Henning and Birch’s clothing and shoes, along with the interior of the Buick. Not a speck of Carr’s blood was found on any of it.
Instead, prosecutors relied on testimony from two jailhouse snitches. One of them, Todd Cocchia, got key details of the murder wrong—he said that Carr had been murdered in the daytime, and that the killer was alone—during his first interview with a police officer. A cop corrected him and gave him the actual facts of the case, according to Birch’s appellate brief. (Amazingly, his testimony was used anyway.)
Without air-tight evidence, Henry Lee was a silver bullet for the prosecution.
“They rolled out a red carpet for him,” Henning recalled recently. “There was a certain celebrity to him, a majesty. He was an up-and-coming superstar on a worldwide level.”
He added, “Every one of the jurors was glued to every word he was saying. It was nonsense, but they were eating it up.”
Lee testified over several days at Henning and Birch’s separate trials, often alongside grisly crime-scene photos.
“He had a very big, likable personality,” Birch said. “He cracked wise with his broken English and had the judge, jury, and myself chuckling, even during such a serious trial.”
After Lee testified about “blood” on a towel (blood that wasn’t actually there), prosecutors used his statements to explain away the lack of any physical evidence. They told jurors the killers used it to wipe themselves clean of Carr’s blood before bolting from the home. Ultimately, Henning was sentenced to 50 years. Birch was hit with 55 years.
But in 2006, the Connecticut Innocence Project launched an effort to re-investigate and re-test dozens of items found in Carr’s home, using modern DNA techniques. They discovered Lee’s testimony was “patently false,” that the “the towel had not been tested” and the stains “were not blood,” according to Henning’s appellate brief.
But there was an even more stunning revelation: DNA found mixed with Carr’s blood—including on the waistband of his underwear and floorboards of the house—belonged to a mystery woman. Henning's legal team, led by the non-profit Centurion, which is dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted people, found the bloody footprints were size 7.5 to 9—much smaller than Henning’s or Birch’s. The burglary appears to have been staged, too, according to the court documents.
Other powerful evidence includes the fact that Cocchia has since recanted, and another snitch pleaded the Fifth. A friend of Henning, Timothy Saathoff, also recanted, saying he made up a story because a police officer convinced him it would help his pal, according to court documents. Back then, Saathoff testified that Henning confessed to him that he had committed a burglary where an accomplice killed a man. But Saathoff recently came forward to admit he had lied because the cop persuaded him it would help Henning, if he claimed Henning was at the scene but didn’t commit the murder, according to court documents.
Earlier this month, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the men did not receive a fair trial and ordered new trials, citing Lee’s incorrect testimony. Without the Lee’s claim about “blood,” the case “could very well have collapsed,” the court said.
After the ruling, Lee said, “If they are in fact innocent, I’m happy for them… But who is going to speak for the victim?”
The attorneys for Henning and Birch, Jim Cousins and Andrew O’Shea, now want the men exonerated. Cousins said jurors today place a huge weight on DNA evidence and a retrial would almost certainly result in a not-guilty verdict. The state has not decided yet whether it will retry them.
“I believe with every inch of my being that Shawn and Ricky had nothing to do with this crime,” Cousins told me. “But there are legal niceties that have to happen.”
In November, Henning was released on parole and set free. He said he wants his name cleared.
“I will never have what this conviction has taken away from me. I will never have a career. I will never have a family with children, a nice car or a house. I will never have the things normal people have. I have 30 years of [prison] memories I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he said. “It has been excruciating.”
He added, “I want the state of Connecticut to say in front of the world that it screwed up.”
Birch, who was tried as an adult, remains behind bars at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut. It wasn’t immediately clear when he’d be set free. As a model inmate, he lives in a single cell with his golden retriever mix, Celly, that he’s training for the America’s VetDogs. He said he’s a born-again Christian, working on forgiveness.
“I harbor no ill-will towards Dr. Henry Lee,” he said. “I don’t think he went into trial saying, ‘I’m going to screw over these guys,’ but he slanted his testimony so that he would help convict two people because police told him we were guilty.”
In response, Lee refused to address whether blood was on the towel specifically, but said the physical evidence he provided to the state was truthful. “I did not link fingerprint, sho[e]print, or any blood typings to [them.]”
He expressed a general feeling of regret, saying, “I don’t think I helped anybody. The [victim’s] family even think[s] I am incompetent… It’s like a nightmare.”
But he contends that, while no lab tests were conducted on the towel, a “chemical presumptive” test was taken at the scene that showed it “could” have been blood. “There was a positive reaction… but the DA said ‘That’s not important,’ so I didn’t request a lab confirmation test,” Lee said. “I did not complete these cases myself. I worked as a team with others.”
Lee said he felt pressure from the then-DA, Dennis Santore, and Carr’s wife to find physical evidence that simply wasn’t there. “Before this case, they didn’t have a suspect,” Lee said. “The victim’s wife came to the laboratory and said, ‘You’re incompetent.’ The DA threatened to take me off the case. I still feel this case is strange.”
Carr’s wife didn’t return a request for comment.
Santore contends he didn’t pressure Lee or threaten to yank him from the case. “That never happened,” he said. He said Lee decided on his own that lab-testing the towel didn’t matter. “I would have done anything Lee thought was important,” he said.
The problem of botched evidence may be bigger than Henry Lee. Forensic witnesses are supposed to be credible, unbiased sources of truth within the justice system. But the set-up fails to take into account human nature, legal experts say.
“There is a tendency to want to be part of the team, and to help the team. That can lead to going over boundaries that should be maintained,” said Joseph Kadane, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has written about ethical dilemmas expert witnesses face.
“There’s also the fact that one side hires you and pays the bill,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope. Someone’s monetary—or other—desires could overpower their duties to the court.”
One solution, policy-wise, would be to change the model so that a judge chooses a single expert that both sides agree on, he said.
Ultimately, Henry Lee estimates he has worked thousands of cases over his nearly five-decade forensics career, the vast majority of which have not been discredited. He said he now works cold cases, and sometimes gives lectures on the “limitations of forensic science.”
Asked if he’d do anything differently looking back, Lee said, “Maybe I’d pick another career.” He added, “They are using today’s standard to judge 30 years ago.”
Indeed, forensic-science techniques that were widely used by experts in the 1980s and 1990s—including hair-particle and bite-mark evidence—have in recent years been discredited as “junk science” and ruled inadmissible in court.
“Forensics is undergoing a revolution,” Kadane said. “In the past, it hasn’t been as scientific as it needs to be. Experts reached conclusions as if they were absolutely certain when they had no business being that certain.”
“The problem with forensics is that it almost always involves people—and people are not infallible.”
UPDATE: In the original version of this story, The Daily Beast stated that the female hitchhiker who confessed to Joyce Stochmal's murder came forward four years after she was slain. The hitchhiker came forward three weeks after Stochmal was killed. In addition, in the case of Henning and Birch, it was the non-profit Centurion, rather than the Innocence Project, that discovered the bloody footprint in size 7.5-9. The Daily Beast regrets these errors.