Schuster Institute challenges evidence in rape case
The University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism uses journalistic techniques to reveal corruption and bring injustices to light. Through its Justice Brandeis Law Project — formerly the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project — the Institute has investigated reported cases of people wrongfully convicted in an effort to “make a contribution to resolving the untenable ethical, civil and human rights issues created by wrongful convictions,” according to its website.
The Institute’s most recent investigation to be back in court involves the 1987 conviction of George Perrot, a man from Springfield, Mass., for the rape of a 78-year old woman. This case is currently under review for a potential retrial, almost 30 years after the original trial.
According to the Institute’s website, Perrot, who was 17 at the time, didn’t match the victim’s description of her assailant — she described her rapist as clean-shaven with short, wavy hair, but Perrot had a full goatee and medium length curls at the time of his arrest. Additionally, despite the fact that the woman testified in both the initial trial and the 1992 retrial that Perrot, a man she knew from her neighborhood, was not her assailant, Perrot has remained in prison for almost 30 years. Now, the Schuster Institute is seeking to aid in overthrowing that conviction on the grounds that the hair testing used to convict Perrot was faulty because it was not based in objective science.
Most recently, the Institute played a part in the June 16 exoneration of Angel Echavarria, who spent 21 years in prison for a crime he always claimed he did not commit.
“The [Perrot] case was referred to us by a source who we were corresponding with for another investigation,” Florence Graves, the Institute’s Founding Director, wrote in an email to the Justice. “He said he had received the case information and passed it on to several lawyers who he thought might be interested, but no one responded.”
According to Graves, the Institute began by reading court filings and documents and was “shocked” with what they uncovered.
“Right off the bat, the facts pointed to several classic signs of wrongful convictions: ‘junk’ science, prosecutorial and police misconduct, inadequate defense, a likely false confession [from the night of Perrot's arrest]," Graves wrote. "Even the victim said he didn't do it. So many things had gone wrong. When you are saying to yourself, ‘How could this have ever happened?’ and attorneys and others you consult are also shocked and puzzled, the case deserves scrutiny.”
The Institute has spent the four years since taking the case researching, interviewing sources and combing through records — an investigative journalism process that, according to their website, is more time-consuming than traditional investigative measures. “When George Perrot's case came to us in 2011, it was almost 30 years old,” Graves wrote. “The first step in the investigation is to sort through all of the existing materials and try to understand the case.”
Before the Institute became involved with the case, Graves wrote, there were only a couple of stories in Springfield newspapers about Perrot’s case after his arrest in 1985. “Because his defense and the serious misconduct we have seen in his case had never been written about, we think it's important that there's a lot of sunlight shining on this case.”
According to Graves, Perrot’s first prosecutor, Francis Bloom, “acknowledged in a court hearing after he was caught that he had fabricated a confession and had someone forge both George's signature and a police investigator.”
“If the police investigator hadn't been around when this phony confession surfaced, George would probably never have been able to prove it was a fake,” she added.
According to Graves, the Institute dug through the case’s paper trail, a task made easier with the help of student research assistants. These assistants, she noted, are crucial to the investigation process, often sorting through years of paperwork and evidence.
“For example, in this case we saw that a witness seemed to contradict himself (and another witness) on a key piece of evidence. A student research assistant went back through all the relevant materials and summarized everything that was said about it,” Graves wrote. “Taking a deep dive on issues like this takes a lot of time, but it's important that we work to get as much of the full story as we can.”
Simultaneously, she added, the Institute does research and original reporting in an attempt to provide answers to questions that the trial record leaves open-ended. Graves wrote, “An obvious example of this in the Perrot case is the ongoing review of FBI hair analysis. Clearly, this case was part of a much larger problem with what we now know to be the pseudoscience of hair microscopy.”
Graves added that the case is rife with flawed scientific testing, also noting that hair analysts in the evidentiary hearings in September had called hair testing a “subjective” process: “Among other things, they [the analysts] said that they did not write down what they observed under the microscope, that there was no standard criteria to declare a positive association or lack of association between two hairs, and that for many common characteristics they cited in their conclusions (like hair color), there is no standard scale used by analysts to refer to. This has affected thousands of cases worked at the FBI, and likely many more worked in state or local crime labs.”
She also noted that the case is emblematic of a larger issue of hair analysis within the FBI: in 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that reviewed the science behind several forensic science practices, many of which are employed by the FBI.
In their review of hair testing, the Academy stated that comparing the physical appearance of hair under a microscope — as had been done in the Perrot case — was not scientifically legitimate. Partially due to this report and a string of exonerations in Washington D.C. that involved flawed hair evidence, the FBI and the Department of Justice launched a review of potentially tainted cases in July, 2012, Graves wrote in the email.
She added that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers confirmed to the Institute that Perrot’s hearing is the first to result from the review, meaning that “the result will set precedent for those defendants who come after and, like George, appeal based on the results of the FBI review in their individual case. In George's case, the prosecutor's office is also unable to find the hair in question for DNA testing.”
Whether or not Perrot is granted a retrial depends on the results of two recent evidentiary hearings, which were held on Sept. 11 and Sept. 25 in Bristol Superior Court. During these hearings, Judge Robert J. Kane heard testimony and evidence from both the defense and the prosecution.
While Graves noted that the Institute was not an “active participant” in the evidentiary hearings, she wrote in the email that they have kept in limited contact with the defense counsel, which has kept them updated on court dates and filings, and that they have received many documents from Perrot himself.
She stated that the discovery motion and the investigation of witnesses proved most effective in the hearings, also noting that the Institute has interacted with other media sources — including the Boston Globe, the Associated Press and WCVB, an ABC affiliate.
Yet regardless of the outcome of the hearings — that is, whether the judge decides to grant a new trial — the Institute plans to continue their investigation into the case. “There are still many issues which we feel need to be explored further. … Whatever happens, we will follow the case as it develops and continue our investigation.”
An earlier version of this article implied that the Perrot case is the Schuster Institute's most recent investigation. It is, in fact, the Institute's most recent investigation to make it back to court.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Perrot's trial and conviction occurred in 1985. In fact, Perrot was arrested in 1985 and was tried and convicted for the first time in 1987.
An earlier version of this article referred to the 1992 trial as an "appeal," when it was actually a retrial.
An earlier version of this article referred to hair testing as DNA testing, when, in fact, hair analysis is a different area of forensics.
An earlier version of this article an earlier version of this article stated that Angel Echavarria was exonerated on May 18, 2015. In fact, Echavarria was released on bail on May 18, and was exonerated on June 16, 2015.
An earlier version of this article stated that the "likely false confession" to which Graves referred was the confession that had been forged by the prosecutor in Perrot's first trial. The confession to which Graves was actually referring is a document from the night of Perrot's arrest.
An earlier version of this article implied that the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report dealt with scientific practices used only by the FBI. The scientific practices that the report looked at are used generally, including by the FBI.