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Kevin Siehl

Other Pennsylvania Cases with Official Misconduct
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On July 14, 1991, tenants reported to their landlord that water was running out of 29-year-old Christine Siehl’s apartment and flooding the building in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The landlord entered the apartment and found the 29-year-old woman stabbed to death in the bathtub with the shower running.

She had been stabbed or sliced about 20 times during a bloody struggle in the bathroom that left blood spattered on the walls and floor, a broken mirror and an overturned cat litter box.

Detectives focused on Siehl’s estranged husband, Kevin, 35, after a police fingerprint examiner said a fingerprint on the shower head was in a position that indicated that the person who left it was standing outside the bathtub and directing the shower to spray directly onto the victim. The print was identified as Kevin Siehl’s.

Siehl was arrested on August 29, 1991 and charged with first-degree murder, third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

Prior to trial, Siehl’s defense lawyers hired forensic analyst W. Stewart Bennett, who described himself as a forensic reconstruction expert. Bennett ultimately reported that he agreed that the fingerprint on the showerhead was left by the defendant—a conclusion that would be proved wrong more than two decades years later.

Scott Ermlick, an analyst in the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Laboratory, informed detectives that DNA testing could be performed on certain items of evidence, but that it would have to be sent to a private laboratory because the state police lab did not have the capability at the time. Before any decision was made, however, Ermlick consumed all the evidence during serological testing on the blood, so that no DNA testing could be done. Ermlick later said he went ahead because he didn’t think the prosecution would actually pay for DNA testing.

Ermlick reported that he found what he believed to be blood—though he could not say for sure— on the side of one of Kevin Siehl’s shoes, which had been confiscated by police. Ermlick also said he examined blood spatters near the bathroom door jamb and found, based on blood typing, that one of the spatters came from the victim and another came from Siehl. This single, small spatter was the only blood attributed to Siehl from the bloody crime scene.

Bennett, the defense expert, was only allowed to visually inspect the evidence and reports and could not perform any invasive testing. During the inspection, state police trooper Merrill Brant was present as an observer to preserve the integrity of the evidence.

While preparing for trial, the prosecution learned (according to an unsigned typewritten note found years later in the prosecution file) that Bennett found incriminating evidence on the tennis shoes during his examination of the evidence. Bennett reported to the defense that he’d found cat excrement, cat litter and broken pieces of mirror on the shoes—evidence that implicated Siehl in the crime.

On the eve of trial, the prosecution directed Ermlick to conduct another analysis of the shoes. While he was unable to find the cat excrement, litter or pieces of mirror that Bennett claimed to have found, Ermlick did find a stain inside Siehl’s shoe–a stain he believed to be blood. This finding actually corroborated Siehl’s claim that sometime prior to the murder, he had cut his heel on the cement outside the victim’s apartment.

When Siehl went to trial in Cambria County Court of Common Pleas in the spring of 1992, Ermlick testified that he performed only one round of testing on the evidence and that he found blood on the outside of Siehl’s shoe. He also testified that he found both Siehl’s and his wife’s blood types on the doorjamb.

The prosecution presented evidence of the fingerprint, which the defense agreed had been left by Siehl. Brant, who was a fingerprint analyst for the state police, testified that the print had not yet started to deteriorate, which meant it had been left within 24 to 36 hours of the discovery of the victim’s body, although there has never been a scientific basis to actually date a fingerprint. The defense’s explanation was that Siehl still spent time at the apartment and sometimes showered there even though he was living apart from his wife.

Siehl did not testify, but presented an alibi defense through the testimony of family members (with whom Siehl had been living since his estrangement from his wife) and their neighbor. The witnesses all testified that the victim dropped Siehl off at Siehl’s parents’ home at about 1:30 a.m. on July 13 and that he remained there until the body was found on the evening of July 14.

The defense did not present testimony from Bennett, the forensic analyst, because they believed he had found incriminating evidence on Siehl’s shoe and feared Bennett would be required to testify about his findings if called as a witness.

On May 16, 1992, the jury convicted Siehl of first-degree murder and voted unanimously to reject the death sentence urged by the prosecution and instead imposed a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Siehl’s conviction was upheld on appeal. He later sought help from the Innocence Project and got DNA testing of some items of evidence, but the results were inconclusive.

Siehl subsequently filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was initially denied. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit appointed Federal Public Defender Lisa Freeland to represent him and, in 2009, ordered an evidentiary hearing on Siehl’s claim that his counsel was ineffective for hiring an unqualified and incompetent expert.

At the hearing, Herbert Leon MacDonnell, a renowned forensics expert, testified that the fingerprint on the showerhead was not Siehl’s. MacDonnell also challenged testimony of Brant, the prosecution’s fingerprint analyst. MacDonnell said it was impossible for anyone to provide a date or time for when a fingerprint impression was made and questioned whether Brant was qualified as a fingerprint expert based on Brant’s testimony that the print on the showerhead had been left within 24-36 hours.

MacDonell also testified that Bennett—the forensic analyst hired by Siehl’s defense attorneys at trial—was not qualified in any field of forensic science, let alone fingerprint identification or blood analysis. The defense also presented evidence from MacDonnell that the blood on the doorjamb came from the same source, which was the victim.

Prior to the hearing, Freeland, and assistant federal defenders Christopher Brown and Elisa Long, were provided documents from the prosecution showing that Ermlick had performed the second round of tests. These documents had not been disclosed to Siehl’s trial defense lawyers. The documents revealed how Ermlick found a blood stain inside the shoe—which he had missed in his initial testing—and the discovery that there was no cat excrement, litter or mirror shards on Siehl’s shoes.

Based on the evidence presented in the federal court hearing, Siehl was granted an opportunity to present the newly discovered evidence in state court. In July 2016, Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Grine, who had been appointed to oversee the case after all of the Cambria County judges recused themselves from the matter, vacated Siehl’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

Judge Grine ruled that the prosecution had concealed Ermlick’s second round of testing which revealed the blood found inside Siehl’s shoe as well as the failure to find cat litter or cat excrement and had “elicited false and misleading testimony at trial in regards to the evidence, and failed to correct said testimony.”

The prosecution—one of the original trial prosecutors had since become a Cambria County judge—also failed to correct the false testimony and to disclose the evidence “throughout the post-conviction proceedings.”

The judge also found that Siehl’s trial defense attorneys (one of whom had also become a Cambria County judge) had failed to obtain an independent expert analysis of the fingerprint but did not contest that it was left by Siehl. The defense lawyers, the judge noted, also were “aware that Bennett’s findings in regards to the evidence were based purely on visual inspection and assumptions, without any chemical testing.”

On October 12, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charge and Siehl was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/29/2016
State:Pennsylvania
County:Cambria
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1991
Convicted:1992
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:35
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No