On September 12, 1970 John Eddie Mitchell, a 13 year old boy, disappeared in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The next day a hammer was found with blood and Mitchell’s hair on it near the Crawford family garage. Police searched all the garages in the area and found Mitchell’s body under a car in the Crawford’s garage. He had been bludgeoned to death and the hammer, which belonged to the Crawford family, was the likely murder weapon.
Finger and palm prints were recovered from a car in the garage and tested. Steven Crawford, a 14 year old friend of Mitchell’s, was suspected because his palm prints matched one of the prints found at the scene. Additionally he was seen near the garage at the time of the crime, one of Mitchell’s sisters claimed that she had seen the two together that day, and he had subsequently been convicted of burglary. Crawford was arrested three and a half years after the murder, on February 14, 1974, when additional tests on his palm print at the scene revealed the presence of blood.
Crawford claimed that he had been helping a neighbor construct a go-cart all day, though he had left several times to run errands. The principal evidence against him was the bloody palm print. Janice Roadcap, a state police chemist, testified that blood was found only on the ridges of the print and not in the valleys and that this meant that blood was on the hand when the print was made.
Crawford was convicted of first degree murder by a jury in the Court of Common Pleas in Dauphin County on September 18, 1974. This conviction was reversed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on October 8, 1976, because of improper admission of evidence relating to the precise dating of finger and palm prints. Crawford was convicted a second time on February 24, 1977, but then granted a new trial after it was revealed that the prosecutors had failed to provide him with potentially exculpatory evidence.
Prosecutors then offered Crawford a deal: if he pled guilty he would be sentenced to time already served. Crawford rejected the deal because it required him to admit guilt. He was tried a third time, convicted by a jury of first degree murder on February 17, 1978, and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1997 a man named Frederick Kaeppel admitted to investigators that he had lured Mitchell into a garage and that another man, not Crawford, had killed him. Kaeppel refused, however, to identify the actual killer, or to testify under oath once he was told that any testimony could lead to felony charges against him.
In 2001 a discarded briefcase that had belonged to a detective in the case was found by two youths rummaging through a dumpster. It contained information about the case, including the original report prepared by Janice Roadcap, the state police chemist. This report had never been provided to Crawford and it was different from the report in the state police archives: it said that blood had been found in the valleys as well as the ridges of Crawford’s palm print, meaning that the blood was not on his hand when the print was made but had been left on the car at some other time. That interpretation fit Crawford’s claim that his prints were there because the car was in his family’s garage, and that he had assisted police when they removed the car from the garage after the murder. Roadcap had blacked out and altered the report in order to make it support the prosecution theory of the crime.
On June 24, 2002 prosecutors conceded in a habeas corpus proceeding that Crawford had not received a fair trial and he was released on $1 bail. On July 16, 2002 prosecutors determined that they would not try Crawford for a fourth time and dismissed all charges against him. Crawford has sought compensation from the various parties involved in the case. Some of these claims have been dismissed, and he has reached undisclosed settlements with other parties.
— Michael S. Perry