Ex-crime lab chemist's work questioned

Legal clinic seeks audit of cases after man cleared in rape of Towson woman

February 22, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A prominent legal clinic for the wrongfully imprisoned is calling for an audit of hundreds of Baltimore County Police Department cases, contending that a former forensic scientist's erroneous testimony during a 1983 rape trial raises doubts about any conviction in which she played a role.

Nina Morrison, director of the New-York based Innocence Project, said chemist Concepcion Bacasnot's testimony against Bernard Webster, the Baltimore man recently exonerated by DNA evidence, was "at the very least, suggestive of gross incompetence, and at worst, deliberate fraud."

Morrison said she will ask the Maryland attorney general's office to conduct an audit similar to one under way in Montana. In that state, more than 600 cases are under review by an independent commission because of recently revealed errors by that state's crime laboratory director.

"Once we know that someone has done science falsely, we feel obligated to go look at other work they've done," said Aliza Kaplan, the Innocence Project's deputy director. "How many innocent people are behind bars based on a state scientist's lies on the stand?"

Baltimore County Police Department spokesman Bill Toohey said he was unaware of the questions surrounding Bacasnot, who left the department in 1987. He said the department would comply with any mandated audit.

Bacasnot, who now has another position in the county unrelated to police work, said she had not heard of any challenges to her forensic work. She said that during her 10 years with the department, no superior had ever questioned her competence. She said she did not remember Webster's trial.

Webster was 19 years old when he was accused of the 1982 rape of a Towson woman. He was released from prison in November after Maryland public defender Michele Nethercott found DNA evidence that proved he could not have committed the crime.

Nethercott said that from the time she first read the transcripts from Webster's trial she was suspicious of Bacasnot's testimony. After Webster's exoneration, lawyers from the Innocence Project looked at the transcripts and felt the same.

Last week, Morrison sent Bacasnot's testimony to Edward T. Blake, one of the country's top DNA experts who is based in California. Blake's response was scathing.

`Systemic tolerance'

"Ms. Bacasnot's false testimony in this case is clearly designed to bootstrap the State's case theory," he wrote. "Such false testimony in this case can not be expected to be isolated. Rather, it reflects a fundamental lack of candor and integrity that can only result from systemic tolerance or systemic encouragement."

At issue is Bacasnot's testimony about the attacker's blood type. On the stand, the chemist contradicted her written report, saying it was a typographical error when she wrote that the rapist had type AB blood. She said the attacker must have had type A blood - which Webster has.

More importantly, said Morrison, when Bacasnot was asked whether the attacker could have been type AB, she replied, "No."

"This statement is simply false," Morrison said.

Given the test Bacasnot used, she said, a man with an AB blood type was as capable as being part of the mix as a man with type A blood.

"That this scientific fact is the case is known by every competent and honest forensic scientist," Blake wrote in his letter.

Nethercott, Webster's lawyer, said there are two other cases she knows of in which Bacasnot testified.

`Substantial questions'

"There were substantial questions raised both about her competence and the veracity or truth of the testimony she was offering," Nethercott said.

Nethercott said she will be looking into those cases to see whether Bacasnot's testimony might have led to a wrongful conviction.

But she and Morrison say there could be hundreds more cases affected. During the decade Bacasnot worked in the department, she was one of four chemists who analyzed evidence in the vast majority of the county's drug, rape and homicide cases. Bacasnot said she left the department because of the stress involved with testifying in court.

"I liked the chemistry part," she said. "It was testifying that I was so afraid of. I was just scared [of defendants]. When I left, it was such a relief."

Toohey, the police spokesman, said Bacasnot was not fired. He said confidentiality rules forbid him from commenting on the circumstances surrounding her departure or on any criticisms of her abilities. He said he did not believe there was any comprehensive departmental review of her cases.

Toohey also said the Baltimore County police lab is now fully accredited, and said it was impossible to compare the lab today to what it was two decades ago.

But to the Innocence Project, that's not the point.

"Where there's smoke, there's often fire," Morrison said. "Or at least you have to rule out the possibility that there is fire. ... There's a risk that there are innocent people who have been harmed by this serologist."

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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