Thursday, 10 January 2008

Effort to downplay unknown evidence in Heins murder trial

Last modified 1/9/2008 - 9:53 am
Originally created 010908

Effort to downplay unknown evidence in Heins murder trial

THE CASE: A prosecutor was concerned about the impact of hairs found not to be the suspect's.
THE DEFENDANT: Chad Heins served 11 years in prison before getting freed by new DNA evidence.

Only weeks before Chad Heins' murder trial in 1996, a Jacksonville prosecutor sent a memo asking a state crime lab supervisor to downplay findings that stray hairs found on the victim's body came from an unknown person.

"I need to structure your testimony carefully so as to convince the jury that the unknown hairs are insignificant," Assistant State Attorney Stephen Bledsoe wrote in a letter recently obtained by the Times-Union.

In December 1996, a jury convicted Heins of the first-degree murder of his sister-in-law in her Mayport apartment. He was sentenced to life in prison until new DNA tests led to his release last month.

Bledsoe's letter was among thousands of pages of documents examined by Heins' lawyers after a judge allowed re-testing of DNA in the case. Although the attorneys don't believe it affected the outcome of the case, the letter shows a "cavalier disregard for the actual evidence," said Jennifer Greenberg, policy director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which worked for Heins' release.

"It actually made my stomach turn," Greenberg said Tuesday. "This is not a game. This is justice. These are people's lives and they matter and the truth matters."

But State Attorney Harry Shorstein called Bledsoe, who he's known for 35 years, one of the most ethical prosecutors in his office. Bledsoe probably wanted to ensure that the crime lab witness testified about possible explanations for the unknown hairs, Shorstein said.

"I don't like the wording of the letter because I think it does lead to conjecture or suspicion of wrongdoing," he said. "But the important thing is he disclosed that evidence. Steve Bledsoe is about a straight an arrow as any lawyer I've ever worked with."

Bledsoe, who now supervises the State Attorney's Office branch in Nassau County, couldn't be reached Tuesday despite messages left at his office and with a colleague.

He wrote the letter in November 1996 to Suzanne Livingston, an analyst supervisor at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab in Tallahassee. The letter refers to hair evidence she analyzed from Tina Heins' body, particularly three hairs that didn't match the victim, her husband or Chad Heins.

"The defense was particularly happy to hear that," he wrote. "... I need to minimize the three unknown donor hairs."

Livingston said she didn't recall the letter, but reviewed it from her file after being contacted Tuesday by the Times-Union. She wouldn't say whether such a request was unusual.

"We often have discussions with prosecutors and attorneys about our testimony," she said. "Nothing they tell us or ask us changes our findings."

A transcript of Livingston's trial testimony shows she briefly told jurors about the findings under questioning by Bledsoe and again under cross examination. No one knew then that more sophisticated DNA testing a decade later would match those hairs to other DNA from an unknown donor, indicating another person was in the apartment when Tina Heins was stabbed to death.

Chad Heins is free today because of the DNA, not the hair evidence, said Robert Beckham, one of his lawyers.

Heins won a new trial in 2006 based on new DNA testing. Prosecutors dropped charges allowing him to go free last month after the new evidence came to light.

Before the dismissal, prosecutors sought to keep Heins' lawyers from using the letter at trial.

Robert Link, another of Heins' attorneys, agreed that the letter had little impact on the case's outcome, but could have been used to show that the state tried to influence expert testimony.

"If Chad Heins had written a letter to a certain witness telling them to testify a certain way, that certainly could have come out - and would have," Link said., (904) 359-4107

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