Held without proof, boy free He's jailed 6 months, even after DNA test debunks evidence

November 20, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST -- Since late spring, when Cecil County prosecutors tossed a learning-impaired teen-ager into jail, they had insisted that he was a murderer. The boy's blood, prosecutors claimed, was found in the victim's home.

This week, they freed the boy, conceding that the blood was not his after all.

What prosecutors failed to add was this: They had known for months that the blood did not match, and they kept the 16-year-old boy locked in jail as an adult based largely on evidence that they acknowledge did not link him to the crime.

"He shouldn't have been in jail six days, let alone six months," said John Henderson, a Cecil County public defender who represented the boy, Allen Jacob Chesnet of North East.

"What this boils down to is they had scientific evidence that would exclude my client, but it wasn't shared with us in a timely fashion," he said. "That may not have kept him out of jail altogether, but it cost him a good part of that six months he was in."

Prosecutors say they kept Chesnet in jail not only because of the blood evidence, but also because he had confessed to the crime.

But his parents and his attorney say -- and prosecutors agree -- that the boy's confession came only after 15 hours of interrogation by state police at their North East barracks during which no lawyer was present. A day after telling state police that he killed his neighbor, Beulah Honaker, Chesnet reportedly told the judge at his arraignment: "I didn't do it."

Chesnet, his family says, is borderline retarded and reads at second-grade level.

Said Chesnet's mother, Bessie Finnefrock: "They locked him up and kept him locked up on a lie. There wasn't his blood. There wasn't any confession worth anything, because by the end he would have said whatever they wanted him to say."

In North East, Detective Sgt. Tom Coppinger of the state police said that the interrogation of Chesnet probably lasted less than six hours and that the prosecutor and defense attorneys are mistaken to believe it lasted longer.

The state police spokesman, Capt. Greg Shipley, said the boy did not have an attorney present because he voluntarily waived his right to one.

After he confessed on the second day of his interrogation in May, Chesnet was charged with the stabbing death of Honaker and jailed. On Tuesday, prosecutors dropped a charge of first-degree murder and related offenses, releasing him from jail.

The killing, which occurred at the 52-year-old woman's North East home May 26, is unsolved. The case remains under investigation, and Chesnet could be charged again. "There's a lot about this case that's outrageous," said Henderson. "The way the police conducted the interviews and the investigation was not the way these things are supposed to be handled."

Blood evidence

Blood evidence was considered vital to the case because

investigators discovered soon after the body was found that not all the blood in Honaker's house belonged to her.

Honaker's attacker, they determined, was either cut during a struggle or had been injured before entering the house. In either case, police deduced that the second blood type found at the scene was the killer's.

"It was evident to the investigators that the suspect had left blood at the crime scene," said John L. Scarborough, the Cecil County state's attorney, who handled the case. "Subsequently, they came into contact with Chesnet, who had a cut on his hand and blood on his clothing, and he eventually confessed to his responsibility for the murder."

That is what the grand jury heard, Scarborough acknowledged: that there was blood found at the scene, Chesnet had a cut on his hand, the blood at the scene was almost certainly his, and the boy had confessed to the crime.

The case, big news in this small upper Chesapeake Bay county, went to the grand jury and an indictment was secured.

Because of DNA testing procedures, state police were not able to definitively determine until mid-September that the blood was not Chesnet's.

But in an interview with The Sun this week, Scarborough acknowledged that state police knew there was little chance the blood was Chesnet's soon after the murder.

Probable cause

"We got the preliminary reports in a matter of weeks," Scarborough said. "We got our formal reports in September. [Investigators] were trying to identify the blood through associates of his [Chesnet's] right up until he was released. We were trying to shed some light on the blood evidence of the crime scene. That's why he was held, and it's not like there wasn't any other probable cause."

Chief among the reasons for holding Chesnet was his confession, Scarborough said. After being falsely told by state police during his interrogation that DNA blood tests placed him at the scene, the boy admitted that he had cut himself during a struggle with his victim and bled in her house, the prosecutor said.

Finnefrock, Chesnet's mother, told the area's daily newspaper, the Cecil Whig, that her son is a sensitive boy who was manipulated by investigators. When police were interrogating her son, they told her and her husband that he was not a suspect and thus did not need an attorney.

She told The Sun this week that she could not talk about the case specifically, under the advice of her attorney, but she contends that Scarborough kept her son in jail because intense publicity surrounding the case came while he was involved in a tough re-election battle.

Though final blood test results were available in September, it was no coincidence, she said, that her son was not released until after the general election. Scarborough was re-elected.

Scarborough called the allegation of a political motive "preposterous."

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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