Fingerprint Misidentification Leads to Wrongful Conviction in Indiana…

Cara Wieneke

Congrats to Indiana post-conviction attorney Cara Wieneke, who had a murder conviction thrown out last week after proving that her client had been convicted based on a fingerprint misidentification.  After learning of the story (here’s a news clip), I asked her to write a more detailed account.  Here is what she wrote:

State of Indiana v. Lana Canen

On Thanksgiving 2002, Helen Sailor, an elderly woman living in Elkhart, Indiana, was found dead in her apartment. Because her apartment had been ransacked, police believed robbery was the motive for the killing. They found several latent prints, including one on a plastic container that held Sailor’s prescription medication.

Police had few leads, however, and the case went cold. Several months later, the Elkhart Police Department created a homicide unit and decided to reopen the investigation of Sailor’s death as one of its first cases. Police focused on Lana Canen, a tenant in Sailor’s apartment building.

Police contacted Dennis Chapman, a detective with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, to conduct a comparison of the latent print found on the plastic container with Lana’s fingerprints. Detective Chapman had some training in print classification and ten-print examination, but he had no training in conducting latent print comparisons. After conducting his examination, he concluded Lana was the source of the latent print.

Lana steadfastly maintained her innocence and said she had never been in Sailor’s apartment. Police knew Lana was physically incapable of killing Sailor, so they believed she must have had help. Residents of the apartment building told police that Lana had a close relationship with Andrew Royer, another tenant in the building. Police talked to Royer, a young man with mental health issues, and obtained a confession to the crime.

At Lana’s jury trial for felony murder, the prosecutor relied heavily on the testimony of Detective Chapman, which placed Lana inside Sailor’s apartment. Lana was convicted and sentenced to 55 years. On appeal, the Court of Appeals cited the fingerprint testimony as one of its reasons for affirming her conviction.

Lana filed a petition for post-conviction relief, and I was appointed to represent her. After reviewing the trial transcript, it became clear that the fingerprint was likely the piece of evidence upon which the jury chose to convict. So I hired Kathleen Bright-Birnbaum, a certified latent print examiner in Arizona, to conduct an independent comparison.

When Ms. Bright-Birnbaum informed me that she had excluded my client as the source of the latent print, I immediately told the prosecutor what I had learned. He claimed Ms. Bright-Birnbaum was a “hired gun.” So I requested that the prints be sent to the Indiana State Police Crime Lab for an examination. The prosecutor objected. I thought that I had arranged for the Crime Lab’s examination anyway, regardless of the prosecutor’s objection. But the prosecutor’s office contacted the Lab about the case, and suddenly the examination could only be done through a court order or by request from the prosecutor.

So I prepared for the evidentiary hearing. As part of her testimony, Ms. Bright-Birnbaum prepared a Powerpoint presentation, detailing each step of her examination. I provided a copy to the prosecutor, as provided by our state discovery rules. A week before our evidentiary hearing, the prosecutor showed the presentation to Detective Chapman. He became concerned and wanted to re-examine the print evidence. So the Monday before the hearing, the prosecutor met with Detective Chapman while he conducted the re-examination. Detective Chapman realized he had made a misidentification.

The prosecutor contacted me on Tuesday with the information, but he still insisted on a hearing. Two days later, we had a lengthy evidentiary hearing. After Ms. Bright-Birnbaum testified, using her Powerpoint presentation, Detective Chapman testified. He stated that he had made a misidentification, and that he now believed Lana was excluded as the source of the latent print on the plastic container. He explained that this change in his original conclusion was due to the additional training on latent print examinations he had attended since the trial. He also admitted that he felt pressure when conducting the original examination because he wanted to help out the Elkhart City Police. Finally, he admitted that he mistakenly overstated his fingerprint examination experience during his testimony at trial.

At the conclusion of the hearing, I withdrew my request to send the print evidence out to the Indiana State Police Crime Lab, because I no longer saw a need for the Lab’s involvement. The prosecutor, however, did an about-face and decided that he now wanted the Lab to examine the evidence. The judge agreed, and the evidence was submitted to the Lab. Just a few days after the hearing, the Lab issued its report indicating that Lana was excluded as the source of the latent print.

I filed a motion for Lana’s immediate release from the Department of Correction, so that she could be returned to Elkhart County for retrial. The judge gave the prosecutor an opportunity to respond. The prosecutor attempted to negotiate a plea agreement with Lana that, with her good time credit, would have been the equivalent of a time-served plea, but Lana rejected the offer. The State filed its response, joining in my motion for Lana’s release. The judge granted Lana post-conviction relief, vacated her conviction for murder, and has ordered her to be returned to Elkhart County. A jury trial on the original charge has been scheduled for December 17, 2012.

4 responses to “Fingerprint Misidentification Leads to Wrongful Conviction in Indiana…

  1. A CLASSIC example of the potential fallibilities of fingerprint evidence. In this case – reliance on the competence and “opinion” of an examiner, and the pressure to produce an expected result.

  2. Dear heavens — the case is STILL scheduled for trial?

  3. Reblogged this on C.S.I. Jedi.

  4. Pingback: Fingerprint Misidentification: State of Indiana v. Lana Canen

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