National Politics

New trial ordered for men charged as teens in 1985 death

The Connecticut Supreme Court ordered new trials Friday for two men convicted more than three decades ago in the stabbing and beating death of a 65-year-old man.

The felony murder convictions of Ralph "Ricky" Birch and Shawn Henning in the Dec. 1, 1985, slaying of 65-year-old Everett Carr, of New Milford, were based in part on false testimony about blood stains on a towel that later were proven not to be blood, the court ruled.

Birch has served more than 30 years of a 55-year sentence for felony murder, Henning, who was 17 when the crime occurred, was granted probation just last year under new rules for teenage offenders.

"It's horrible this even happened to them," said Andrew O'Shea, Birch's attorney. "But we can't change that. All we can do is try to make the best of it and clear their name. They did not kill Everett Carr, and they've been desperate to show the world that."

It was not clear Friday whether the state would attempt to retry the men. Messages seeking comment were left Friday with the prosecutor's office.

Despite an extremely bloody crime scene, O'Shea said, no DNA evidence was ever found linking the pair to Carr, who had been stabbed 27 times, had his throat cut and suffered seven blows to the head. Despite being identified as suspects shortly after the crime, no blood was found on their clothes or in their car.

During their trials, prosecutors presented evidence from forensic expert Henry Lee, who would later gain fame as a witness in the O.J. Simpson murder case, that it was possible for the assailants to avoid getting much blood on them.

Lee also testified that a towel, which later was suggested could have been touched by the killers while cleaning up, was found in a bathroom near the crime the scene with stains consistent with blood. But later tests showed it was not blood.

"If the jury had known that Lee's testimony about finding blood on the bathroom towel was incorrect, that knowledge might well have caused it to question the reliability of his other testimony. If that had occurred, the state's entire case against the petitioner could very well have collapsed," Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the high court.

The men's lawyers also argued that tests conducted between 2010 and 2012 on blood found on a piece of the murder weapon, a floorboard, the body and a cigar box touched by the killer turned up the DNA of an unknown person, likely a woman, and found that footprints at the crime scene were too small to match either defendant.

Birch and Henning have acknowledged being involved in burglaries in the area and were living in a stolen automobile, but they have maintained they had nothing to do with Carr's death.

Witnesses, including Henning's grandmother, testified that he made incriminating statements about the death of a man and a dog but said he had not actually participated in the murder.

Defense attorneys dispute that, arguing that jailhouse witnesses lied to get a deal and that the grandmother misunderstood what her grandson was saying. They also point out no dog was killed.

The men's convictions had been upheld by lower courts, and prosecutors argued in their brief that the defense has not provided evidence that would warrant having their convictions thrown out.

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