Two weeks ago, Chris Conover walked away from prison and a life sentence because new DNA testing had disproved prosecutors' contention that two of his hairs were found at the scene of a 1984 double murder.
Now, Conover's lawyers and other legal experts are questioning why prosecutors are not taking steps to find out whose hair was, in fact, on the body of 18- year-old Lisa Lynn Brown.
This is not the first time defense attorneys have been frustrated by what they see as Baltimore County prosecutors' reluctance to re-examine DNA evidence after it has overturned a conviction.
Ten years after DNA testing cleared Kirk Bloodsworth in the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton of Rosedale, police have not run the evidence through state or national DNA databases of felons - databases set up to solve such crimes.
"When a prosecutor agrees to dismiss murder charges against someone they thought committed the crime, their ethical duty to seek justice requires testing forensic evidence with every person in the criminal databank," said Douglas L. Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Prosecutors said they asked Baltimore County police to run the DNA that cleared Bloodsworth through the database this year - nearly nine years after the state set up its first DNA database of sex offenders and 10 years after Bloodsworth was exonerated.
Prosecutors said they have checked the DNA against new suspects in the case and rejected criticisms that they have not been fully investigating the murder.
"This prosecutors office has been for at least 28 years known as one of integrity and as one that has been very concerned about people's safety," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor.
She listed several reasons prosecutors had not asked police to run the DNA before this year: Police had fresher cases to deal with, for example, and prosecutors were already using the DNA to check individual suspects in the case.
S. Ann Brobst, who prosecuted Bloodsworth, said she could not provide information about the number of suspects tested because "it is an open investigation."
Convinced of guilt
In Conover's case, prosecutors said they will not ask any law enforcement agency to check the DNA against the database because they are convinced he is guilty. As proof they point to the Alford plea that Conover signed to secure his release, in which he maintained his innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of armed robbery.
Moreover, prosecutors said, testing the hair from Conover's case is useless at this point. They said the hairs were notable in 1985 only because an FBI scientist said they came from Conover, a suspect. Just because the hairs were at the crime scene doesn't mean they came from the murderer, prosecutors said, so why test them?
"These hairs could have been from anyone," said Stephen Bailey, Baltimore County's deputy state's attorney. "It's a red herring."
But Conover and his lawyers, who insist upon his innocence, as well as a half-dozen legal experts unconnected to the case, wondered why prosecutors would not check the DNA.
"It's worth running the DNA testing," said L. George Parry, a Philadelphia attorney and former state and federal prosecutor. "They might be surprised by what they find. If they get a hit in the DNA database, it might prove absolutely nothing, ... but I would want to run out every conceivable lead on a case like that."
Parry and other legal experts also questioned why prosecutors have not run the evidence from the Bloodsworth case through the database.
"I think it would be important to find out whose DNA is in this child's underwear," Parry said. "Why wouldn't you want to know whose DNA is in her underwear? It almost sounds stupid to say out loud."
O'Connor said the prosecutors office had asked "months ago" that police check the DNA against the database.
"We've asked that it be done," she said. "You can't do anything more than that."
Maryland established its database of DNA from convicted sex offenders in 1994, a year after Bloodsworth was exonerated. The state expanded the database in 1999 to include all of Maryland's felons. The FBI's nationwide DNA database, which combines those of all 50 states, opened in 1998.
"I have asked people to put it in the [database] for a long time now," said Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison before being exonerated. "They should submit that sample, [which] was from someone else, and find out who the heck that is. It's not fair to Dawn Hamilton's family and her memory, and it's not fair to me. And it's certainly not fair to the citizens of this state. It's ludicrous."
Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said prosecutors and police officials met in April to discuss running the DNA from the Bloodsworth case through the database. He said new testing must be done on the semen sample to put it into a form in which it can be tested against the database.