Friday, January 29, 2016

After 30 years, a prisoner gets a chance for justice

George Perrot was tied to a rape by an FBI analysis of a strand of hair, a method that has since been discredited

George Perrot could soon be free at last. He should never have been behind bars.

In a groundbreaking ruling with national implications, a Superior Court judge on Tuesday ordered that he be given a new trial on the rape charge that put him behind bars for so long. It is the first time a judge in the United States has ruled that justice was denied because prosecutors relied on forensic hair analysis, now widely discredited.

"George was only 17 when he was arrested and has spent 30 years in prison without ever receiving a fair trial," said his attorney, Kirsten V. Mayer. "He never had the opportunity to do the everyday things that are so easy to take for granted when you are not in prison. We are now working to reunite him with his family as soon as possible."

Perrot was charged with raping an elderly Springfield woman in 1985, when he was 17, even though the victim, a neighbor, insisted he was not her attacker.

No matter, prosecutors argued: There was other evidence against Perrot — most notably, a single strand of hair found at the scene. On the stand, an expert witness from the FBI testified that the hair, found on the victim’s bed, was a match for Perrot, and that only someone "with a lesser amount of training" would conclude otherwise. In closing arguments, prosecutor Francis Bloom told jurors the hair evidence was so strong that Perrot could be innocent only if police had planted that strand in the victim’s house.

The jury convicted him.

We now know that Bloom crossed a line — in this and in other ways — presenting the jury with a false choice, a fact underscored by Judge Robert J. Kane’s thoughtful and thorough decision Tuesday.

Over the last two decades, consensus has grown that the microscopic hair analysis that was crucial to Perrot’s conviction, and a factor in hundreds of others, amounts to bogus science. The FBI now acknowledges that nobody can identify a particular person as the source of a hair or say whether a match is even probable.

"It is not a close call," Judge Kane wrote. "Without that [hair analysis], the Commonwealth’s claims of Perrot’s violence were open to several lines of attack conducive to the creation of reasonable doubt."

Before this week’s ruling, Perrot’s attorneys had tried several times to win him a retrial, alleging prosecutorial misconduct and citing gaps in the Commonwealth’s case.

Perrot was troubled, under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and sleep-deprived when police interrogated him. Though he was a minor, no parents or attorneys were present. Police said he eventually signed a confession admitting to breaking into the rape victim’s home but still denying the sexual assault. But he has no recollection of signing the statement, and he has since repeatedly denied breaking into the woman’s house that night.

When Perrot was first arrested, District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr. suggested he was responsible for a series of horrendous rapes of elderly women in the area. But three victims failed to pick the 17-year-old out of a highly suggestive lineup that included police officers. An analysis of semen found at the scene of another of the rapes excluded Perrot. The victim in the one rape with which he was charged described a clean-shaven attacker, but Perrot had plentiful facial hair. During Perrot’s first trial, the woman said a paragraph was added to her sworn statement after she signed it.

None of it was ever enough to clear his name: It kept coming back to that single hair.

Tuesday’s ruling "will send a thunderbolt through the forensic community," said Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at The Innocence Project, which assisted Mayer in the case, which was also taken up by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. "The judge ruled that the hair evidence would be inadmissible in a trial today, upsetting a century of precedent."

In his decision, Kane took the remarkable step of singling out Bloom for criticism. The prosecutor "despised Perrot," Kane wrote. "He referred to Perrot as ‘inherently evil’ and ‘a sociopath’ and scoffed at Perrot’s redemption."

The judge said "such feelings enable a person possessing public authority to shed the restraints and scruples that limit the exercise of power. The feelings allow the official to see the individual as apart from the community of citizens whose rights must be regarded."

Kane found that Bloom’s animus towards Perrot influenced his dealings with the FBI expert who testified in the case, who then "departed from his role as a neutral expert and slipped into the role of a partisan for the government."

It was merely the latest finding of a transgression by Bloom, who left a trail of them when he was an assistant district attorney. Before Perrot’s first trial, a first-degree murder conviction was overturned because of Bloom’s misconduct in the courtroom. After Perrot was convicted, it was discovered Bloom had fabricated a written confession, forging the signatures of Perrot and a detective, to trick two of the teen’s friends into admitting they had helped rob and rape one of the victims.

A judge called his actions "outrageous" and "reprehensible," and Bloom was publicly censured. In 2013, another murder conviction was overturned, and the defendant released from prison after 27 years, because witnesses recanted their identifications of him. They claimed Bloom had offered them leniency for false testimony. Bloom, now a personal injury lawyer, did not return a call.

Perrot’s attorney will now request he be released on bail pending a retrial. The Hampden district attorney may appeal the decision, or accept it and retry the case against Perrot — or decide not to.

In a statement, District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni said he disagrees with the judge’s decision, citing the fact that Perrot was found guilty in two trials and previous appeals were denied. He is likely to argue that Perrot, who left the state when a previous release was reversed, will flee if granted bail.

"Going forward," the statement continued, "we will evaluate an appeal and will respond in court to the defendant’s request for bail, based on his security risk to the public and his history of flight before trial."

A friend called Perrot to tell him the good news on Tuesday night. He was so happy he couldn’t form words at first.

"I am going home!" he finally yelled.

Original report here

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