In March of 2001, a troop of Girl Scouts visited the public library in Newtown, Connecticut and one of the scouts reported that a man sat down at her table on the third floor and began to masturbate.
The girl fled the table to tell her mother, who was the troop leader, but by the time the mother returned, the man was gone. Librarians recalled that a man who had reserved Greek tragedy works was studying in that area earlier and gave police the man’s phone number.
The girl described the man as Hispanic-looking with dark hair.
The phone number belonged to 42-year-old Michael Seri, who was working as a house painter and studying for a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Police questioned him and then, three months later, he was arrested, even though he is white, balding and at the time wore long sideburns and a goatee.
The girl failed to pick Seri out of a police lineup. Fingerprints were lifted from two books found at the table where the girl said the man was sitting and police said it was possible the prints belonged to Seri. Police declined a defense request to submit the fingerprints to a national crime database.
At trial, the girl identified Seri as the man she saw masturbating. A fingerprint expert testified for the prosecution that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that Seri’s fingerprints were on the books.
Seri was convicted of risk of injury to a minor, a felony and two misdemeanors. He was sentenced to six months to five years in prison and was released in 2002 after serving six months. He was required to register as a sex offender.
While Seri was still in prison, a friend came across a police report in the Newtown newspaper that said a man named Angel Laporte had been arrested for masturbating in front of a girl at the same library in June 2002. The girl had followed Laporte out of the library and copied down his license plate number as he drove off.
Seri’s uncle was an FBI agent who had asked Newtown police to run the fingerprints through a national crime database, but they refused. When he learned of Laporte, he asked Newtown police to compare the prints to Laporte’s fingerprints. The comparison showed the prints were Laporte’s, not Seri’s.
Records showed that Laporte had a history of arrests for public indecency that included incidents at libraries in nearby Fairfield, New Milford, and Brookfield as well as Newtown.
In February, 2003, Seri was granted a new trial and Fairfield County prosecutors dismissed the charges. Seri filed a lawsuit against the police department, but the case was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley