Woman exonerated in murder loses appeal over fingerprint errors

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to allow a plaintiff to seek money damages against an Elkhart County detective who incorrectly identified latent fingerprints as those of a woman convicted of murder in 2002. The panel ruled that despite his training, the detective was still considered an expert on fingerprint identification.

After Helen Sailor was strangled to death in her home in 2002, Lana Canen, along with another man, was charged and convicted in the crime. Her conviction resulted partly from testimony from Detective Dennis Chapman with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, who concluded that a latent fingerprint on a plastic container used to hold Sailor’s medication matched Canen’s fingerprint.

During the trial, Chapman testified that he had compared roughly 100 sets of fingerprints during his career and was trained to recover latent prints from a crime scene.  However, during proceedings on her petition for post-conviction relief, a fingerprint expert hired by Canen analyzed the print evidence and excluded Canen as the source of the latent print.

Chapman re-examined the evidence and also concluded that he had erred in his previous findings and recanted his earlier testimony as part of the PCR hearing. When the court asked why his opinion had changed, Chapman said “part of it” was based on his additional training in latent print identification in 2006.

Further, Chapman said his previous testimony as to his experience referenced his experience with “known” or “inked” prints and that he had not reviewed as many latent print as suggested by his trial testimony. A subsequent examination of the latent print evidence by the Indiana State Police Laboratory also excluded Canen as the source, so her conviction was vacated and she was released after seven years in prison.

Curtis Hill, who recently was sworn in as Indiana’s Republican Attorney General, was involved in Canen’s exoneration.

Canen then filed the present suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, seeking money damages on the basis that Chapman had violated her due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) when he held himself out as an expert. The district court granted summary judgment to Chapman, partially on the basis that the detective was immune from suit.

Canen then took her case to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, but Judge Kenneth Ripple, writing for the unanimous appellate panel, affirmed the district court’s decision on Friday.

Like the district court, the 7th Circuit panel found that Chapman was protected by immunity first because Canen failed to prove that the law at the time of the trial clearly required Chapman to voluntarily declare his minimal training in evaluating latent finger prints.

In Fox v. State, 506 N.E.2d 1090 1095 (Ind. 1987), the Indiana Supreme Court held that “(n)o precise quantum of knowledge is required if the witness shows a sufficient acquaintance with the subject.” Thus, because Chapman was highly trained and practiced in fingerprint analysis, including latent exams, he qualified as an expert, Ripple wrote.

Further, Ripple noted that neither the prosecution nor the defense in Canen’s case asked Chapman to explain the differences between latent and known fingerprints, nor did they ask about his formal training in one discipline versus the other.

“Ultimately, Ms. Canen has pointed us to no case that establishes the legal principle that an officer is obliged to reveal the limitations on his training when he has stated his background, such as it is, then exposed himself to cross-examination by the defense,” Ripple wrote.

The case is Lana Canen v. Dennis Chapman, in his individual capacity as Deputy for the Elkhart County Sheriff Department, 16-1621.


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