Balto. Co. reviews cases tied to chemist

Former police researcher criticized for testimony against man later freed

March 12, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Police Department has started the formidable clerical task of tracking down 480 cases worked on by a former police chemist who has come under fire for her 1983 testimony against Bernard Webster, a Baltimore man whose rape conviction was recently overturned because of DNA evidence.

Police officials said they want to evaluate whether Concepcion Bacasnot's work as a chemist - which a renowned legal clinic has criticized - was a problem in other cases besides Webster's.

"We're going to be looking for people who are still in jail and whose cases could possibly be affected," said Bill Toohey, a police spokesman.

The Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic for the wrongfully convicted, and an independent forensic expert recently said Bacasnot's testimony against Webster suggested "gross incompetence, and at worst, deliberate fraud."

The legal clinic has called for an audit of any case she worked on during the 10 years she spent as a Baltimore County police chemist, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

Nina Morrison, the Innocence Project's director, said the county Police Department's move to review the cases was commendable, but that there should be an independent audit of Bacasnot's work.

"The fact that [the police] are willing to do this review is good news, and it certainly confirms our sense that what came up in the Webster case was troubling enough to merit a review," Morrison said. "We would encourage [the police] to work with us, to put together a team of neutral outsiders."

Morrison said she has spoken to the Maryland attorney general's office about an independent audit. Blair G. Brown, a Washington attorney who is on the board of the National Capital Region Innocence Project, a group with the same mission as the New York clinic, said local lawyers and law students could volunteer to look into the Baltimore County cases.

"I told [Morrison] we were interested in getting involved in it," he said.

Toohey has said the department would cooperate with any audit required by the attorney general's office.

In 1982, Webster, then 19, was accused of breaking into a Towson apartment and raping the woman who lived there. At his trial, Bacasnot testified that the rapist's blood was type A, matching Webster's.

The chemist also testified that a report she had written earlier in the case, in which she had said the rapist had blood type AB, was a mistake. She said that based on her serological reviews, the rapist could not, in fact, have had AB blood.

But those assertions were false, said forensic expert Edward T. Blake, who reviewed Bacasnot's testimony for the Innocence Project. He wrote that any "competent and honest forensic scientist" would know the scientific explanation she gave was untrue.

"This misrepresentation was a violation of her witness oath and falls within the definition of material perjury," Blake wrote in a letter outlining his views on her testimony.

Webster was released in November after DNA evidence showed he could not have committed the rape. He had spent 20 years in prison.

Bacasnot has said she does not remember Webster's case, and said nobody at the Police Department ever raised questions about the quality of her work. She said she left the department in 1987 for personal reasons.

Toohey said that when the Police Department heard last month about the questions regarding Bacasnot's work, it started a review of her cases.

"The very first thing we did was to make sure there is no one on death row because of her work," he said. "And there was nobody on death row because of her work. Now we are gathering the paper together for everything else."

That means going through microfilm, tracking down long-stored homicide files and searching through old, scattered records.

The department has a log of all the cases in which Bacasnot participated, which is how it knows it must look for 480 cases. But until the department finishes its research, it will not know how many of those cases resulted in convictions, or how many defendants are still incarcerated.

"It's a tedious clerical task, and it will take time," Toohey said.

Morrison and Michele Nethercott, the public defender who helped free Webster, said they have identified a few cases on which Bacasnot worked, and said there are questions about her abilities in those cases.

In one, Bacasnot helped convict Frankie Smith of a 1982 murder by testifying that the victim's blood was on Smith's car. Nethercott said Bacasnot also worked on the case of Robert Bedford Jr., whose death sentence was switched to life in prison in 1991 for the murder in 1986 of a Catonsville woman.

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