Lana Canen, convicted for the 2002 murder of her neighbor, Helen Sailor, in Ekhart, Indiana, had her conviction reversed based on faulty fingerprint analysis.  Canen was convicted of being an accomplice in the beating, robbery, and murder of Sailor.  At trial, Detective Dennis Chapman testified that fingerprints on a pill bottle found at the crime scene matched Canen.   At that time, Chapman conducted a “level-one basic comparison” on key similarities between a latent print — one retrieved at the crime scene — and fingerprints taken from Canen when she was taken into custody.  He did so despite lacking any training in conducting latent print comparisons.  Regardless of his lack of qualifications, Chapman testified that a fingerprint recovered from a plastic pill container in the victim’s home matched Canen’s left small finger.  This was the only evidence against Canen and she was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

After Canen’s conviction, attorney Cara Wieneke, took on the case and believed that Canen was innocent.  Wieneke hired an independent expert to conduct an analysis of the fingerprint.  The expert told Wieneke that, based on her analysis, Canen was excluded.  According the Wieneke, the prosecutor refused a request to have the state crime lab re-analyze the print.  Canen was then granted an evidentiary hearing and her expert prepared a report on her findings.  That report was turned over to the prosecutor and reviewed by Detective Chapman.

Here is where things get interesting.   According to Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers, Detective Chapman saw that evidence depicted a higher level of analysis of the print, the sheriff said, and Chapman was convinced he made an error.  Chapman reported his error to his supervisor, and Rogers ordered an internal investigation. “It was discovered Chapman conducted a basic comparison of the print based on his experience and training at that time, but the comparison did not go far enough,” Rogers said. “Detective Chapman’s analysis was in error.”  Rogers said the sheriff’s department has core values of integrity and fairness. He added that Chapman admitted his error openly in court and to Rogers’ office on his own initiative.  At the evidentiary hearing, Detective Chapman admitted that he made a misidentification.  He testified that his current opinion is based on additional training that he received since Canen’s trial.  Detective Chapman also admitted that he overstated his experience to jurors at the trial.

As a result of the hearing, the prosecutor asked that the murder conviction be overturned.  In addition, Detective Chapman was disciplined but sheriff gave no details.  At this time, the prosecutor plans to retry Canen and trial is set for December 2012.

This case is significant for several reasons.   The case shows how important training and re-training is for government analysts.  Detective Chapman was not qualified to testify to latent print comparisons and this fact should have excluded his expert testimony.  It is important for defense attorneys to carefully see if prosecution experts have the qualifications to testify accurately.  If Chapman had received additional training, he very well could have refused to change his original conclusion.  An expert who lacks the proper qualifications increases the chances of a wrongful conviction.

District attorneys and their experts also must believe that analyses and conclusions can change over time.  Often, we encounter district attorneys who are unwilling to re-examine evidence in light of new forensic research.  Even in this case, the prosecutor failed to believe the original analysis was wrong until the Detective Chapman admitted it.  Analysts and prosecutors should be conscious of and trained on new scientific research and be willing to re-open past convictions.

If an analyst does admit a mistake, what should the consequences be?  I think the circumstances should dictate the consequences.  Misconduct along the lines of Annie Dookhan in Massachusetts clearly deserves a  firing and filing of criminal charges.  But does Detective Chapman deserve discipline after admitting he was wrong?  Could this possibly have a “chilling effect” and discourage analysts from admitting mistakes?  After all, there is a difference between intentional misconduct and lacking the qualifications to make an accurate analysis.  Shouldn’t we encourage analysts to re-examine their findings and, if warranted, come to a different conclusion.  One of the ways that innocence projects free the wrongfully convicted is to test the reliability of the scientific evidence used for conviction at trial.  The Canen case shows that both sides of a case need the tools and cooperation to be able to do this effectively to free the innocent.