On November 28, 2002, 94-year-old Helen Sailor spent Thanksgiving with relatives and then got a ride back to her home at an apartment complex for the elderly, disabled and handicapped in Elkhart, Indiana. The following day, a health care provider and two relatives found Sailor strangled to death in her apartment, the premises ransacked.
Because there was no forced entry, Elkhart police believed the victim knew her assailant. They began interviewing residents, but they were stymied and the investigation went cold.
In August 2003, police revived the investigation and the following month, 28-year-old Andrew Royer, a mentally-handicapped resident of the building, was brought in for questioning.
Police said that during interrogation, Royer at first made statements that indicated he was familiar with the crime and that upon further questioning, he admitted that he strangled Sailor with a rope. Police said Royer said he took jewelry and money.
Royer was charged with murder on September 4, 2003.
While some residents of the building expressed relief, others were skeptical that Royer was the killer because of usually placid demeanor.
In 2004, while Royer’s case was pending—his trial was delayed for three separate mental competency examinations—police said they received a tip that 44-year-old Lana Canen, who also lived in the complex and knew Royer, may have been involved in the crime.
One of the investigating officers believed that Canen had previously burglarized apartments in the building, although there was no proof. Canen was questioned and denied any involvement in the crime. Police then interviewed a neighbor of Canen. The neighbor, who was a heavy drug user, told police that Canen had made incriminating statements, such as “no one was supposed to get hurt.”
Canen was arrested on September 3, 2004—almost a year to the day after Royer was charged—and her fingerprints were compared to fingerprints found in the victim’s apartment.
Elkhart police asked Dennis Chapman, a detective with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, to conduct a comparison of a latent print found on a plastic pill container in Sailor’s apartment with Canen’s fingerprints. Although Chapman had some training in fingerprint classification and the examination of rolled fingerprints, he had no training in conducting latent fingerprint comparisons. After conducting his examination, he concluded the latent print matched Canen’s left little finger.
Canen was then charged with murder.
Royer and Canen went on trial together in Elkhart County Circuit Court. The primary evidence against Royer was his confession. The principal evidence against Canen was the fingerprint and the neighbor who testified that Canen had made incriminating statements. Chapman testified that he had matched Canen’s fingerprint to the print on the plastic container.
Canen testified and denied any involvement in the crime. “I’ve never been in that apartment,” she told the jury. The defense had hired a retired detective to analyze Chapman’s finding, but did not call the detective as a witness after the detective concurred with Chapman’s conclusion.
On August 10, 2005, the jury convicted Royer and Canen. They were each sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Their convictions were upheld by the Court of Appeals of Indiana.
In 2010, Canen filed a pro se post-conviction petition and attorney Cara Schaefer Wieneke was appointed to represent Canen. Wieneke requested that the prosecution provide access to the fingerprint evidence so that it could be evaluated by private expert, but the prosecution objected and her motion was denied.
When Wieneke discovered that the detective hired by Canen’s lawyer was not qualified to do fingerprint analysis and that Canen’s lawyer had not investigated Chapman’s credentials, she again asked for the evidence, but was again rebuffed.
So Wieneke then sent the high-resolution photographs of the fingerprints that had been used as evidence at the trial to an independent fingerprint examiner, who concluded that Canen’s fingerprint did not match the print on the pill container.
Wieneke then filed an amended post-conviction motion for a new trial on behalf of Canen, contending that Canen’s lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense and that Canen was innocent.
Wieneke tracked down Canen’s former neighbor who recanted her testimony that Canen had made incriminating statements. At a deposition prior to the hearing, the woman claimed she couldn’t recall whether Canen made the statements or not.
During a deposition of Chapman in September 2011, in preparation for a hearing on the motion, Chapman said he had performed more than 100 fingerprint comparisons and that he had never been wrong.
In the summer of 2012, as the hearing date neared, Wieneke sent the prosecution a PowerPoint presentation prepared by her expert. After prosecutors showed the presentation to Chapman, he became concerned and asked to review the original evidence.
After reviewing the fingerprints, Chapman concluded that he had made a mistake—the fingerprint on the pill container was not Canen’s after all.
At the August 16, 2012 hearing, Chapman said he had changed his opinion because of additional training he had received since he testified against Canen. He admitted he had overstated his fingerprint examination experience during the trial and that he had felt pressure to help the Elkhart police department solve the crime.
The prosecution—which previously had objected to Wieneke’s request that the Indiana State Police Crime Lab examine the evidence—decided to send the evidence to the lab. Analysts at the lab confirmed the latent fingerprint was not Canen’s.
Wieneke filed a motion for Canen’s immediate release from prison and the prosecution offered to negotiate a plea agreement for time served. On September 28, 2012, after Canen refused to negotiate, the Elkhart County District Attorney’s Office joined in the motion for Canen’s release.
On November 2, 2012, the conviction was vacated, the charge was dismissed and Canen was released from prison.
In January 2014, Canen filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from the detectives who made the erroneous fingerprint identification.
– Maurice Possley