With Consent of State’s Attorney, Connecticut Court Vacates 2001 Murder Conviction Based on DNA and Other Evidence; Alfred Swinton Released
06.08.17 By Innocence Staff
Bite Mark Analyst Rejects Testimony Connecting Swinton to the 1991 Crime
(Hartford, CT – June 8, 2017) Acting on a motion to set aside the judgment filed by the Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy, a Hartford Superior Court today vacated the 2001 murder conviction of Alfred Swinton based on new DNA and other evidence. The bite mark analyst who provided critical testimony linking Swinton to the 1991 crime acknowledges that bite mark evidence has been discredited by the scientific community and no longer believes there was any valid scientific basis for his testimony. Significantly, testing has excluded Swinton from the male DNA collected on swabs taken of the bite marks on the victim. DNA testing also excluded Swinton from DNA from underneath the victim’s fingernails and in her rape kit. The court released Swinton from prison on the condition that he remain at home wearing an electronic monitor. The case was adjourned until July 20th for the State’s Attorney to conduct additional investigation and decide how to proceed on the case.
“When we presented the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office and State’s Attorney Hardy with the DNA results and new evidence establishing that bite mark comparisons are no longer considered reliable, they moved quickly and undertook a thorough reinvestigation,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of Post-Conviction Litigation at the Innocence Project, which is associated with Cardozo School of Law. “Recognizing the importance of the new evidence pointing to Mr. Swinton’s innocence, State’s Attorney Hardy moved diligently and expeditiously. She brings life to the dictate that the role of a prosecutor is not just to obtain convictions, but to seek truth and ensure that justice is done.”
“This day would also not be possible without the cooperation of bite mark analyst Dr. Gus Karazulas, who now acknowledges that his testimony had no basis in science,” added Chris Fabricant, director of Strategic Litigation at the Innocence Project. “In the twilight of his long and distinguished career, Dr. Karazulas elevated the truth above personal considerations and now stands as an example of a forensic scientist honoring the duty to correct the record when new facts or data suggest that a miscarriage of justice has occurred.”
Swinton became a suspect in the 1991 murder of Carla Terry soon after her body was found on January 13, 1991, because he had been in the same bar as the victim on the night she was murdered. He was arrested for the murder after police conducted a search of the basement of the apartment building where he lived and recovered a bra in a box in a common area that contained other clothing and objects. In addition to the bra, which the state theorized belonged to the victim, the state presented bite mark analyst Dr. Lester Luntz at a probable cause hearing who claimed that bite marks on the victim’s body were linked to Swinton. The court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to establish probable cause and Swinton was released.
The case went cold for several years, until October 8, 1998, when Swinton was again charged with the murder. At the subsequent probable cause hearing, the victim’s sister, who had not identified the bra in 1991, changed her testimony, claiming she had given it to the victim on the night she was murdered. The state also presented a new bite mark analyst, Dr. Karazulas, who testified – based upon a reasonable degree of scientific certainty – that Swinton “caused the bite mark that is depicted in the photographs” of the victim’s breasts, and that he was able to identify that the injury was inflicted “just before or at the time of death.” Based on this new evidence, the court found probable cause to charge Swinton of murder.
Swinton, who was 51-years-old and had no significant criminal record, always maintained his innocence and endured a lengthy trial in early 2001. The only physical evidence linking Swinton to the crime was the testimony of the victim’s sister and Dr. Karazulas. The state put on several witnesses who gave conflicting testimony about Swinton’s presence in the bar on the night of the murder. Three informants with substance abuse problems or prior felony convictions claimed that Swinton made statements relating to the victim in the months after her death nearly a decade earlier. The state also introduced portions of a tape recording from a freelance writer who interviewed Swinton for an article sensationally titled, “Killer at Large.” While the article implied that Swinton made self-incriminating statements, the unedited tape of the interview reveals that Swinton consistently professed his innocence. The state also presented a jailhouse informant used in at least one other case who claimed that Swinton confessed to the crime. However, in a secretly recorded conversation between the informant and Swinton, there are no incriminating statements but rather Swinton maintains his innocence and asks, “Why are you picking on me?” Swinton was convicted and sentenced to 60 years.
The Connecticut Innocence Project originally represented Swinton and thanks to a federal “Bloodsworth” grant was able to conduct DNA testing in 2014 and 2015 that pointed to Swinton’s innocence. Testing of the bite mark swabs indicated the presence of saliva and identified male DNA not matching to Swinton. DNA testing of the bra for “wearer” and “touch” DNA revealed the presence of skin cells that did not match to the victim or to Swinton, strongly suggesting the bra was never worn by the victim.
Because of a conflict, the Innocence Project took over Swinton’s representation in 2015, and after bringing the case to the attention of the State’s Attorney’s office, DNA testing of the fingernail scrapings of the victim was performed. Results also excluded Swinton.
Innocence Project lawyers also contacted Dr. Karazulas, who served as the chief forensic odontologist of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory for more than 25 years, about his testimony. Since his 2001 testimony against Swinton, the scientific community has rejected bite mark analysis as a forensic method capable of identifying a suspect, finding that it is not based in science. A 2009 landmark report by the National Academy of Sciences found that there is “no scientific basis for forensic odontologists (bite mark analysts) to proffer individualization testimony.” Every other scientific entity that has examined bite mark analysis, including the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which recommended a ban on the use of bite mark evidence, have also condemned the use of bite mark analysis. In fact, the American Board of Forensic Odontologists, the accrediting board for bite mark analysts, no longer permits analysts to make a positive identification from bite mark comparisons. In an affidavit filed with the court, Dr. Karazulas acknowledges the scientific community’s repudiation of bite mark analysis and maintains that he no longer believes that Swinton is the person who inflicted the bite mark on the victim. Mr. Swinton is the 29th person since 2000 whose conviction was vacated or indictment dismissed based, at least in part, on bite mark evidence.
In addition to Potkin and Fabricant, Swinton is represented by Innocence Project Attorney Adnan Sultan; Maura Barry Grinalds, Ed Tulin and Thania Charmani of Skadden Arps; and Ken Rosenthal of Green & Sklarz.