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With Charges Dismissed, Two Wrongfully Accused Men File Civil Rights Lawsuit

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John Phelan
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Creative Commons
Connecticut Supreme Court

Shawn Henning and Ricky Birch were accused of a New Milford murder as teenagers in 1985. Found guilty, they served 30 years in prison. But those convictions were overturned, and in July the charges were dismissed. Henning and Birch are now seeking justice in federal court. 

In two separate lawsuits, the men are suing the town of New Milford, the state and local police and detectives who built the case against them, and Dr. Henry C. Lee, who was the chief criminalist at the State Police Forensic Laboratory at the time.

David Lebowitz, who is representing Birch in the suit, said the case “illustrates the tragic consequences that can ensue when investigators develop tunnel vision around an investigation. [They] become convinced that a particular suspect is guilty and filter the investigation through that lens, rather than letting the facts lead them to the conclusions.”

At issue was whether a towel found at the crime scene had the victim’s blood on it. Lee maintains to this day that the towel was tested for blood, but the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the murder convictions last summer, concluding that the towel was never tested.

Lee claimed that his effort was to discover the forensic facts of the crime and that in doing so, he could show no bias. He said “this case, it’s not really solved by forensic evidence, [it’s] not solved by me, either.”

Certain false statements made by Lee were not corrected at the time of the original trial, which affected Henning’s ability to seek justice, according to the Supreme Court decision.

The decision did not say Lee lied under oath, but rather that he was honestly mistaken. In their lawsuits, Henning and Birch are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.

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