Sunday, January 14, 2007

Four Fingerprints: Will the SJC look beyond the botched DNA test in the LaGuer case?

(Cross posted at Blue Mass Group - This is an updated variation on an earlier post.)
LaGuer: Four Fingerprints

By Eric Goldscheider
January 10, 2007

Last Thursday, a couple of hours before the new governor was sworn in, the Supreme Judicial Court heard a challenge to Benjamin LaGuer's 1984 conviction for raping a 59-year-old neighbor.

James C. Rehnquist, son of the late chief justice, argued that the verdict should be invalidated because the commonwealth failed to turn over a State Police report, made the day LaGuer was arrested, showing that four fingerprints on a key piece of evidence were not his. The prints were found on the base of a telephone whose cord was used to tie the victim up.

This may seem like a technicality. It isn't for two important reasons: 1) Anything that violates our constitutional guarantee to a fair trial is never a technicality. We have a presumption of innocence because every defendant might indeed be innocent. 2) A great deal of evidence, including that fingerprint report, says LaGuer did not commit the crime.

LaGuer's case, which originated in Worcester County, became a signature issue in the Massachusetts governor's race when Republican Kerry Healey blanketed the airwaves with two 30-second spots trying to bring Democrat Deval Patrick down by casting LaGuer as a latter-day Willie Horton. Patrick had once supported parole and then a DNA test for the inmate.

Distressingly for the cause of justice, some members of the high court seemed to be influenced by the botched DNA test Healey trumpeted in her tarring of Patrick's efforts.

It would be a sad day if that blitz prejudices the judiciary against LaGuer. Sandra L. Hautanen, arguing for the Worcester District Attorney, rolled out the same playbook D.A. John J. Conte, whose term in office ended the day before the hearing, has used to defend the conviction for 23 years: first recite the horrendous nature of the crime (which no one disputes), then make it look like the case against LaGuer was so overwhelming that constitutional niceties about a fair trial are irrelevant.

This tactic is designed neither to get at the truth of who committed this crime, nor to ensure procedural integrity.

The unstated premise behind Hautanen's filings is that the victim's eyewitness identification of LaGuer was so strong that it would have been politically risky for any judge to overturn the verdict. But a careful review of the record shows that this is just not so.

Aside from being kept in the dark about the exculpatory fingerprint report, the jury was unaware that the victim had a long history of mental illness. That is by no means her fault and in no way negates the fact that she was grotesquely violated. But taken together with indicators of LaGuer's innocence-such as the fingerprint report and the fact that a man of similar age, height, build and ethnicity, who frequented the building and who had a known history of sexual misconduct, was ignored by the investigating detective-the victim's mental state should raise cautionary flags about the reliability of a cross-racial identification that sent LaGuer to prison for life.

LaGuer could have gotten his freedom at his first parole hearing in 1998 had he admitted to the crime. He instead pursued DNA testing in an effort to prove his innocence. After a four-year process which in the end revealed significant problems with the way the evidence was handled, a test LaGuer fought hard to obtain seemed to link him to the crime.

Alarmingly, some of the justices allowed and even encouraged Hautanen's use of that test even though it has no bearing on the fundamental procedural issues before the court.

Worse, Hautanen claimed it put the chances that someone other than LaGuer committed the crime at 100 million to one without acknowledging that four highly regarded DNA experts have since studied the testing reports together with the history of how the evidence passed from hand to hand-the so-called evidence chain of custody-and given unambiguous written opinions that the results are unreliable.

The problems with Hautanen's filings go beyond errors of omission and contain blatant misstatements of the factual record. Her untruths extend to earlier blood type evidence that has been scientifically discredited, yet she perpetuates unquestionably false arguments. A prosecutorial strategy that rests on lies, omissions and intimidation subverts the rule of law.

Archives webcasts of SJC oral arguments can be found at Suffolk University Law School.

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