DNA mix-up results in mistrial

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff
Posted Dec. 17, 2009, at 8:51 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Troy Claridge’s February 2009 conviction for sexual abuse of a minor was tossed out Wednesday as he was granted a mistrial because of inconsistencies in the testing of his DNA at the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory in Augusta.

But First Assistant District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh said not only will he retry the case in February, he also will add two more sexual abuse charges.

In November 2006, Claridge, who was 35 years old at the time, was charged with three counts of sexual abuse of a minor involving two 14-year-old girls from Calais. The incident allegedly happened at his home in Calais, and the girls were his children’s friends.

Cavanaugh said Monday that two of the charges were dismissed by the judge after the alleged second victim ended up in the hospital on the eve of the trial and was unable to testify. The hospitalization apparently was not connected to the case.

Since those two charges were dismissed without prejudice, Cavanaugh is free to lodge them again, and he said Wednesday that he now would.

MSP Crime Lab Director Elliot Kollman said Thursday that the public still should have full confidence in the forensic work done at the lab.

“We have had no other issues and in fact, even this case was resolved,” he said. This year, the lab has tested more than 900 DNA samples without incident, he said. “This incident was an anomaly. I am certain that the public should be confident in our work.”

After a full day of testimony on Claridge’s motion for a new trial on Wednesday at Washington County Superior Court, Justice E. Allen Hunter overturned the February 2009 conviction and ordered the new trial.

Testimony Wednesday included an assessment from a Connecticut forensic expert that the crime lab’s report was flawed. Central to Hunter’s decision was the lab’s admission that skin samples submitted for DNA in Claridge’s case had been mixed up with two others and that crime lab personnel failed to disclose the mix-up in advance of the trial.

Although Claridge was convicted in February 2009 based mainly on a semen DNA match taken from the victim’s clothing, Hunter said, “Given the significant weight of scientific evidence, there is the possibility that a fully informed jury might have heard that there was a failure to follow a standard of care [by the lab].”

On the witness stand, forensic scientist Jennifer Sabean testified that she had tested DNA samples at the Augusta lab from three separate cases, including Claridge’s. There was no confusion or problems with the semen DNA, which matched Claridge’s.

At some point in the testing procedure, however, a skin sample from Claridge mistakenly was placed in the folder of the second case, a skin sample from the second case was placed in the third case, and the sample from the third case ended up in Claridge’s file. The skin samples themselves were never commingled.

When the error was discovered, Sabean repeated the testing and found that all the samples matched the appropriate perpetrators or victims.

But the issue of not disclosing this mix-up is what forced the mistrial.

“There is no dispute there was a failure to disclose in advance of trial that there was DNA from a second male,” Hunter ruled. “In my mind, I think fundamental fairness was compromised in this trial.”

Defense attorney Don Brown of Brewer attempted to use the mix-up to advance an alternative suspect theory.

Brown brought Dr. Heather Miller-Coyle to Maine from the University of New Haven, where she teaches forensic science, to bolster his case. She said she reviewed nearly 200 pages of reports that Sabean wrote in Claridge’s case.

Miller-Coyle said that when Sabean discovered she had mixed up the samples, “This problem should have been reported to the attorneys.”

She also said it was unusual for the crime lab not to test DNA samples from the female victims in the case.

Miller-Coyle also said Sabean and Cavanaugh misled the jury by saying the odds that the skin DNA samples weren’t Claridge’s were “gargantuan.” She said that one in every thousand people could have markers similar to the ones that appeared in Claridge’s sample, in which only three of 13 DNA markers matched.

Because of the confusion of samples, Sabean was taken off casework and retrained, David Muniec, her supervisor at the lab, explained in court.

He said Sabean is an exemplary employee and he is “100 percent confident we determined the cause of the mistake. The important part is the sperm matched Troy Claridge.”

Despite the mistrial, Claridge was returned to jail pending action on several other charges. Brown did request bail for Claridge.

Cavanaugh told the justice that Claridge had new criminal activity — including two charges of trafficking in drugs lodged last summer when Claridge was on bail awaiting Wednesday’s hearing — and that he has a lengthy criminal record, including a pattern of fleeing the state to avoid prosecution.

Cavanaugh said other new charges involve violating a no-contact provision with one of the victims by going to her school and criminal mischief when he destroyed a television in Washington County Jail. Cavanaugh requested bail of $100,000 cash.

Hunter set the bail at $15,000 or $150,000 surety on the sex case and another consecutive $15,000 cash on the new drug charges.

Claridge remained in Washington County Jail in Machias on Thursday night.

The new trial is expected to be set for February in Washington County Superior Court.

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http://bangordailynews.com/2009/12/17/news/dna-mixup-results-in-mistrial/ printed on October 24, 2014