Two men who have spent the majority of their lives behind bars have been exonerated, officials said. Ralph 'Ricky' Birch and Shawn Henning, who were teenagers at the time of their conviction, had their names cleared after spending 30 years in a Connecticut prison.
Their felony murder charges were dismissed by a Supreme Court judge after a criminologist’s testimony was determined to have contained mistakes.
“They say the wheels of justice turn slowly. That’s a little bit of an understatement,” Birch, who was wearing a shirt that read “I am innocent,” said after the Friday hearing, according to the Hartford Courant. “I can’t dwell on what happened. They took 30 years of my life and I’m not going to give them any more by being angry.”
Henning, who donned a shirt that read “I didn’t do it,” joked, “I changed my name to ‘Beach,’ because that’s where I’m spending all my time. Just breathing fresh air and enjoying the company of normal people.”
Birch and Henning, who are now in their 50s, were 18 and 17 at the time of the 1985 crime. They had been troubled, homeless teenagers living in a stolen car and committing burglaries to fund their drug habit, the Hartford Courant reported.
The victim, 65-year-old Everett Carr, was a retired truck driver living in New Milford when he was beaten and stabbed 27 times in his home, and succumbed to his injuries. The assailants had tracked blood all over his house as they were rummaging through his belongings, the Washington Post reported.
Investigators at the time believed that Carr had interrupted a burglary by Birch and Henning – however, there had been no traces of blood on their bodies, belongings or car.
The conviction hinged on one key trial testimony: that of world-famous forensic scientist Dr. Henry C. Lee. Lee, who had once worked on high profile cases such as that of O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey.
Lee testified at the time that there was blood on the bathroom towel, leading prosecutors to believe the suspects may have cleaned themselves off before fleeing the scene.
It was later revealed the stain on the towel was not blood, and the towel had never been tested in a laboratory, according to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Last year, the state Supreme Court vacated the felony murder charges and a judge decided Friday against retrying the men since witnesses had died and retests of evidence did not tie the men to the crime.
Birch was originally sentenced to 55 years in prison, while Henning was sentenced to 50 years. The pair had served more than 30 years of their sentences before they were released on probation last year and the year before.
“Mr. Henning and Mr. Birch are now productively contributing to society as they also work to overcome the trauma of thirty years of wrongful incarceration," an attorney said in a statement on their behalf.
"We hope that the state will take responsibility for the profound human consequences of obtaining murder convictions and long terms of imprisonment through indisputable ‘false or misleading’ testimony and arguments.
"We also remain hopeful that the state will use the forensic evidence that has been gathered, and more sound law enforcement tactics, to identify Mr. Carr’s actual killer or killers,” the attorney continued.
The Court did not find Lee's testimony intentionally false or misleading – only that the state should have known it was incorrect.
Lee is also the center of two other convictions that have been reversed or challenged over erroneous testimony. Lee, however, maintains he had done all his work correctly and has continued defending the results. He said he believes his work as an expert witness is now in question as a tactic by the criminal defense attorneys, the Hartford Courant reported.
"I stand behind my scientific merit," Lee said said of the cases in a 2019 press conference, according to the Associated Press. "If the person's really innocent, definitely, they should set them free. But, just trying to smear my reputation to get (their appeal) advanced, that shouldn't happen."