North Carolina Governor Pardons Man Wrongly Convicted Based on Erroneous Hair Evidence
12.01.16 By Innocence Staff
(Charlotte, NC – December 1, 2016) North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory today issued a pardon for Timothy Bridges, who wrongly served over 25 years for a rape and burglary, based in large part on the erroneous testimony of an FBI-trained state hair analyst who claimed that Bridges’s hair linked him to two hairs found at the scene. Bridges was released on October 1, 2015, after prosecutors consented to vacating Bridges’s 1991 convictions. Bridges’s legal team, which included lawyers from the Innocence Project and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, along with David Rudolf, also uncovered evidence that police failed to turn over to the district attorney’s office before trial. Post-conviction discovery materials showed that police paid informants and made other threats or promises to the informants, which was contrary to their testimony at trial. Subsequent DNA testing on crime scene evidence also excluded Bridges. The pardon means that Bridges will be entitled to compensation under a state statute that awards $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment up to a maximum on $750,000.
“Mr. Bridges is grateful to Governor McCrory for granting him a pardon that will go a long way towards helping him to put this long nightmare to rest,” said Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Litigation for the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “In the year since his release, Mr. Bridges has struggled to put his life back together. While nothing can undo the damage he suffered, the official recognition of his innocence and the compensation he will receive will mean his adjustment will be much easier.”
In 2013, after three men were exonerated by DNA evidence in separate cases where an FBI analyst had provided improper evidence at trial regarding hair analysis, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers persuaded the FBI to conduct an audit of cases where FBI agents provided testimony or reports regarding microscopic hair analysis. Initial findings of that review, which were released in 2015 revealed that of 268 cases where agents used microscopic hair analysis to link a defendant to a crime, the agents’ testimony was scientifically invalid in 257 or 96% of the cases. Twenty-seven of twenty-nine analysts provided either erroneous testimony or submitted erroneous reports. The audit does not cover cases, like Bridges’s, where the erroneous testimony was offered by a state hair examiner rather than by the FBI.
Bridges’s case was one of the first to be litigated involving erroneous microscopic hair testimony proffered by an FBI-trained state examiner. Upon being notified of the error, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray moved to restore justice for Mr. Bridges and vacated the convictions. Subsequent DNA testing further supported Bridges innocence.
“Bridges case stands as an important reminder for the need for states throughout the nation to conduct independent reviews of all analysts trained by FBI hair examiners,” said Dana Delger, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation Unit who worked on the case. “For decades FBI analysts and those they trained provided erroneous testimony that provided critical evidence of guilt in cases around the nation. While the FBI has agreed to review the cases it was directly involved in, this review does not cover the cases handled by state analysts trained by the FBI.”
Modine Wise of North Charlotte was the victim of a burglary and assault sometime between the afternoon of May 14, 1989 and the afternoon of May 15, 1989 when her daughter-in-law found her badly beaten in her home. The victim, who was elderly, in poor health and could not see, passed away 13 months later without giving a reliable description of her attacker. Although the victim denied that she was raped, the treating physician testified there was bruising consistent with a rape. The crime went unsolved for several months until three informants with prior criminal records claimed that Bridges confessed to them.
At trial, the prosecution relied on the testimony of the three informants as well as the testimony of Elinos Whitlock III, an employee of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department Crime Lab who had been trained by the FBI in how to conduct microscopic hair analysis. He claimed that he could make a “strong identification” that a hair recovered at the crime scene was Bridges’s hair. He further stated that there was only a 1 in 1000 chance that two Caucasian people (Bridges is white) would have indistinguishable head hair. Notably, the appellate court reviewing Mr. Bridge’s conviction in 1992 found error in admitting the “1 in a 1000” testimony, but found that because the analyst had included language stating that hair was not a basis for individual identification and in light of the informant testimony, the error was “harmless” and affirmed Mr. Bridges’s wrongful conviction.
Bridges always maintained his innocence. His defense rested on the testimony of a former State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) fingerprint analyst. A bloody palm print was found on the crime scene wall that two state analysts agreed did not match to Bridges. Despite a compelling argument by his lawyer that the bloody print must have come from the real perpetrator, Bridges was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
After his release, Bridges moved in with an uncle and cousin in Greensborough, but has since moved into his own apartment in Charlotte.
Bridges was originally represented by Lauren Miller of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc., and Fabricant and Delger of the Innocence Project. Miller and Rudolf represented him in his pardon application.