Chemist quit crime lab job after hearing, papers show

March 19, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A former Baltimore County police chemist, whose work is being questioned by a nationally renowned legal clinic, left the department four months after acknowledging she did not understand the science of her forensic tests and that her blood work in a death-penalty case was "worthless," court papers show.

Some local defense attorneys and officials with the Innocence Project, the New York-based clinic, say that this 1987 testimony, during a pretrial hearing in Robert Bedford's murder case, raises more warning flags about Concepcion Bacasnot's forensic work, and about how the former chemist may have affected Baltimore County defendants throughout the 1980s.

Bacasnot has come under fire for her testimony against Bernard Webster, the Baltimore man who spent 20 years in prison for rape before being exonerated by DNA evidence last year.

Bacasnot's testimony in Bedford's hearing, for which defense attorneys and the Innocence Project only recently obtained transcripts, "certainly raises additional concerns," said Nina Morrison, the Innocence Project's director.

Prosecutors never called Bacasnot as a witness in Bedford's murder trial, said Frank Meyer, who is still an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County.

When asked why, Meyer answered:

"Have you read the transcripts? Well, there you go."

At the pretrial hearing, Bacasnot acknowledged that she did not understand the science behind many of the tests she performed. She acknowledged that she did not perform a number of standard tests on the blood samples in the case, and agreed that other tests she had completed were useless. She also acknowledged that she had failed to record the results of some testing steps needed to ensure accuracy in blood typing, according to transcripts.

Public defender Nancy Cohen, who is now a Baltimore County District Court judge, grilled Bacasnot for hours.

"Now, as a result of all this, isn't it a fact that there is not one finding, one result in this report that is usable, isn't that true?" Cohen asked toward the end of her questioning.

"You can - ," Bacasnot tried to answer, before Cohen started again.

"Your entire report in this case, your entire analysis is absolutely worthless, isn't that right?" Cohen pressed.

"It is what you said, yes," Bacasnot answered.

Meyer said that he and Jack Purcell, the other prosecutor, figured they had enough evidence without Bacasnot to convict Bedford of the bludgeoning death and rape of a Catonsville woman.

From the crime scene pictures, it was obvious that blood was present, Meyer said. Prosecutors did not need to complicate that by allowing a nasty cross-examination of Bacasnot, he added.

The prosecutors apparently made the correct decision: Bedford was convicted of murder, rape and theft, and sentenced to death. Later, he was retried and sentenced to life in prison.

This year, scientist Edward T. Blake reviewed Bacasnot's testimony in Webster's rape case for the Innocence Project. He called her scientific explanations about blood typing in that case "within the definition of material perjury."

When the Baltimore County Police Department learned of Blake's critique, it started tracking down the 480 cases on which Bacasnot had performed or supervised serological tests, said Bill Toohey, a police spokesman. Police wanted to find out whether the Innocence Project's concerns were valid, he said.

Bacasnot has said she does not remember Webster's case, and said nobody at the Police Department criticized her work.

While Morrison and others lauded the Police Department's efforts, they said the recently revealed testimony in the Bedford murder case accentuates the need for an independent audit of Bacasnot's work.

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