Faulty science gains 2 Arkansas convicts chance to seek new trials

Two Arkansas inmates will be allowed to seek new trials because their convictions were based on discredited FBI forensics, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The two cases were among hundreds nationwide involving faulty testimony by FBI expert witnesses.

Lonnie Strawhacker, convicted of rape, and Eugene Issac Pitts, convicted of murder, have spent a combined 60 years in prison. But the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that it could expand an already rare legal remedy to consider the flawed forensics through which the pair were linked to their crimes.

After the high court's ruling, a lawyer for one of the inmates said the decision would lead to another series of court battles. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office expressed confidence that enough evidence exists to uphold the men's convictions.

At issue are the practices of FBI lab technician Michael Malone, who testified at Pitt's 1981 trial and Strawhacker's trial in 1991 that hair samples taken from each suspect matched similar follicles at the crime scenes.

Malone was one of 26 FBI analysts -- out of 28 -- who were found to have made errors in their testimony over the accuracy of the agency's hair analysis, according to an investigation by the FBI, Department of Justice and the Innocence Project in 2015.

The investigation looked at about 500 trial transcripts containing those experts' testimony, and found errors in 90 percent of them. Up to 3,000 cases nationwide may have cited the flawed analysis techniques, according to the FBI.

The Department of Justice informed the pair about issues with Malone's testimony in 2014, years after each had already exhausted their appeals. Both asked the Supreme Court to give them permission to seek a declaration from the original trial court that there were errors in their cases, setting the stage for a new trial.

In a pair of majority decisions handed down Thursday, the court agreed that the inmates should be allowed to proceed to the trial court. The justices also said a rare procedure through which the court could order a new trial -- a writ of error coram nobis -- could be expanded to include the circumstances of the case.

The high court has traditionally considered only four errors in granting such a writ: insanity at the time of trial, a coerced guilty plea, material evidence withheld by the prosecutor or a new confession to the crime.

"We acknowledge that Strawhacker's claim may not fall neatly within one of the four established categories," Justice Rhonda Wood wrote in her opinion dealing with the aforementioned inmate. "But these categories are not set in stone."

Justices Courtney Goodson and Paul Danielson each wrote concurring opinions in which they agreed to allow the trial court to review the cases, but objected to their colleagues' expansion of the range of issues that can be addressed by a writ of error coram nobis. In his opinion, Danielson wrote that the decisions "are advisory, premature, and go too far."

Goodson also questioned the timing of the inmate's request, and, while she offered no opinion on the matter, she noted that questions about the validity of Malone's analysis date back to Strawhacker's original trial.

Strawhacker was convicted of raping a woman outside a Fayetteville nightclub during the summer of 1989. According to court filings, the woman was beaten but never saw her attacker; she identified Strawhacker from a voice lineup. The victim was taken back to her trailer park, where one of her co-workers testified he saw Strawhacker leaving the next morning.

Malone's testimony connected hair samples collected from Strawhacker's jeans to the victim's, calling the follicles "absolutely indistinguishable."

A decade before the rape case, Pitts was charged in 1979 with the murder of Bernard Jones, who was found shot dead in a car near his home the morning after Jones' wife arrived at home to find her husband bound and gagged by a masked man she identified as Pitts. Jones' wife had a restraining order against Pitts. When questioned by police, Pitts had trouble saying where he was at the time of the killing.

A hair found on Jones' body was identified as Pitts' in Malone's analysis. A later DNA test on the hair sample was inconclusive.

The FBI procedure that Malone used involved examining the hairs under a microscope. Starting in 2000, the FBI began routinely using DNA to connect hair samples.

"The Attorney General respectfully disagrees with the Court's decision to allow the felons' challenges to their decades-old convictions to move forward," spokesman Judd Deere said in an emailed statement. "There was substantial evidence that these two prisoners committed the heinous crimes of which they were convicted."

Both men are serving life sentences, Pitts at the Tucker Unit and Strawhacker at Cummins.

Metro on 10/21/2016

*CORRECTION: Lonnie Strawhacker and Eugene Issac Pitts are state inmates who, because of faulty FBI expert testimony at their original trials, were allowed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to ask circuit judges for new trials. A headline with an earlier version of this story did not completely explain Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling.

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