Schuster plays key role in overturning 1992 rape conviction
George Perrot was convicted twice for the Nov. 30, 1985 break-in and rape of a 78-year-old woman. Now, 30 years later, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism has helped to prove that not only was the evidence used to convict him flawed but also that he was not, in fact, guilty of the rape for which he was charged. Judge Robert J. Kane overturned the conviction on Jan. 26, and following an upcoming bail hearing, Perrot could possibly walk free.
Perrot was arrested at the age of 17 and convicted at the age of 19, though the victim of the attack, Mary Prekop, did not identify him as her attacker and testified at two subsequent trials that he was not the man who raped her. Prosecutors introduced into evidence a signed confession to the break-in but not the rape that Perrot says he does not remember signing. At the time of his arrest, he was under the influence of alcohol and Valium, was sleep deprived and was interrogated intermittently for 12 hours before signing the confession. The prosecution also used hair and blood evidence from the scene to support their case, though it was not conclusive. It was noted in the trial that the blood found at the scene could have belonged to eight percent of the population, and the hair analysis techniques have since been discredited, according to the Schuster Institute’s website.
The primary reason Perrot’s conviction was overturned was the hair microscopy evidence used in his trial. Hair microscopy, an inaccurate method of identification that was phased out around 2000 in favor of more scientifically accurate DNA testing, was a method that FBI agents were trained in to examine hairs under a microscope and determine if they matched. These agents were then called as expert witnesses at trial. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a report entirely discrediting the method, reading, “[n]o scientifically accepted statistics exist about the frequency with which particular characteristics of hair are distributed in the population. There appear to be no uniform standards on the number of features on which hairs must agree before an examiner may declare a ‘match.’” Kane wrote in his decision that without the hair microscopy evidence at his trial, it is likely that Perrot would not have been convicted.
During the trial, the prosecutor, Francis W. Bloom, seemingly held a grudge against Perrot, which Kane acknowledged in overturning the decision. Bloom went out of his way to deliver evidence to an FBI lab in Washington D.C., possibly influencing the FBI testimony in the case. He also wrote in his diary how much he disliked Perrot. In his decision this week, Kane wrote, "Such feelings enable a person possessing public authority to shed the restraints and scruples that limit the exercise of power. The feelings allow the official to see the individual as apart from the community of citizens whose rights must be regarded.” Bloom was also censured for fabricating a confession from Perrot in order to trick two of his friends into confessing to another rape.
All of this evidence stuck out as unbelievable to the Schuster Institute when it first took on Perrot’s case in October 2011, after he had already been denied three motions for a new trial and had been turned away from many other organizations that investigate wrongful convictions. The Schuster Institute was the first to agree to look into his case, according to their website.
Once the Institute took on the case, it used investigative journalism techniques to look into the case. “The first step in the investigation is to sort through all of the existing materials and try to understand the case,” wrote Tate Herbert ’15, Assistant Editor at the Schuster Institute in an email to the Justice. “We need to determine what we know and what we don't know; what supports Perrot's claim of innocence and what doesn't. These are all things that need to be checked, compared, analyzed and fact-checked as part of our reporting on the case,” she continued.
Herbert explained that after exploring all of the original materials, the Schuster Institute did its own research and original reporting to fill in the gaps and unanswered questions from the original case. That research included interviews with people involved in the case, public record requests and background research, as well as investigating possible other suspects and any misconduct that occurred during the original trial, Herbert wrote.
In a phone interview with the Justice, Herbert was careful to point out that the Schuster Institute does not work towards exonerating subjects of investigation legally but uses journalistic techniques to bring light to problematic details within cases and try to uncover the truth, which can then assist legal representatives moving forward if they choose to use it.
This decision could potentially influence many cases that have been called into question over the use of hair microscopy evidence at trial. “The decision is vitally important because it will be followed by many other courts around the country which will have to decide how to deal with this erroneous testimony,” Chris Fabricant, the director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project and one of Perrot's attorneys, is quoted as saying on the Schuster Institute website. “While we don’t know how many cases may ultimately be reversed because of the use of this scientifically invalid evidence, we know from the preliminary findings of the review that FBI agents, over a period of more than two decades, erroneously testified or provided erroneous reports in more than 95% of the cases where microscopic hair analysis was used to connect a defendant to a crime,” Fabricant added.
Perrot’s bail hearing was supposed to be held on Monday but was postponed due to snow. At that hearing, he will find out if he will be released on bail. The next step will be for prosecutors to decide whether they will choose to appeal Kane’s decision, choose to try him for a third time or drop all charges against Perrot.
—Editor’s note: Tate Herbert ’15 is a former editor-in-chief of the Justice.
An earlier version of this article stated that the Schuster Institute used investigative journalism to help overturn Perrot's 1987 conviction. The Schuster Institute actually investigated Perrot's second conviction, from 1992.