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Roy Brown

Other New York Cases with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Roy Brown spent 15 years behind bars for a murder he would eventually help solve himself.

In the early morning of May 23, 1991, firefighters were called to a farmhouse in Cayuga, New York. Around 3 a.m., more than an hour after firefighters first responded to the fire, the body of 49-year-old Sabrina Kulakowski, a social worker, was discovered about 300 yards from the house. Investigators quickly determined that she had engaged in a struggle for her life that left her with multiple injuries and defensive wounds. Her assailant had viciously assaulted her, covering her body with bite marks.

Investigators believed that the evidence pointed towards the crime being motivated by a personal agenda because the house had not been robbed and the victim had not been raped.

Kulakowski’s nightshirt was found near her body. Chemical tests later revealed several stains of blood and saliva. The blood from the nightshirt was tested, and the bitemarks were swabbed. The results of both were inconclusive. The coroner’s report said that she had been dragged 300 yards from the farmhouse while wearing the nightshirt, where she eventually died of stabbing and strangulation.

The farmhouse had been set aflame.

The day following the crime, investigators collected statements. Four statements concerned a man named Barry Bench who had been acting strange the evening before Kulakowski’s body was discovered. Bench was a volunteer firefighter. His brother, Ronald Bench, had been Kulakowski’s longtime partner of 17 years. He had lived with her in the farmhouse, which the Bench family owned. Ronald had lived there until their separation two months prior to Kulakowski’s death.

With the initial investigation focusing on Barry Bench, police questioned Bench’s girlfriend, the fire dispatcher, the dispatcher’s wife, and a neighbor about Bench’s actions the night of the murder.

His girlfriend, Tamara Heisner, said that they got into a fight around 5 p.m. the night of the murder. He then left the house and went to a bar before returning home, highly intoxicated, around 1:30-1:45 a.m. This was the same time that Kulakowski’s neighbors began calling 911 about a fire at the farmhouse. Bench was believed to have left the bar around 12:30 a.m., which left a 60-75 minute gap when he was unaccounted for.

The bar was one mile away from his house. Heisner told police that when Bench came home, he immediately went inside to “wash up” and then turned off his fire monitor before going to bed. After the couple received multiple calls notifying them of the fire, Bench joined a search party at the scene where he was seen straying from the group and walking near where Kulakowski’s body would later be discovered.

Despite the numerous instances of suspicious behavior and witness statements implicating Barry Bench, the police stopped investigating him for unknown reasons.

There remains no clear explanation for the transition to focusing on Roy Brown. However, Brown was arrested and charged three days later on May 26, 1991.

Brown, a magazine subscription salesman from nearby Syracuse, had only a tenuous connection to Kulakowski. Brown had recently been released from an eight-month jail term for making threatening phone calls to the director of the social services agency who placed his daughter into residential care earlier that year. Because Kulakowski was an employee at that same agency, investigators theorized that he had murdered her in a rage for revenge.

However, there was no evidence that Brown and Kulakowski had even been in contact. Kulakowski wasn’t the caseworker assigned to his daughter’s case.

Nevertheless, Brown was indicted in June 1991 and went to trial in Cayuga County, New York. The prosecution relied mainly on bitemark analysis. Dr. Edward Mofson, an expert of bitemark analysis, testified that seven bitemarks on Kulakowski’s body were “entirely consistent” with Brown’s dentition even though one of the bitemarks showed six upper teeth in a continuous line where Brown only had four. Mofson explained away the inconsistency by claiming Brown could have twisted Kulakowski’s skin while biting her, thus making up for the gaps left by his missing teeth marks.

A forensic odontologist, Dr. Homer Campbell, the only defense witness, testified that six of the seven bitemarks were not sufficient for proper analysis. He testified that the seventh mark excluded Brown because it showed six upper teeth in a continuous line where Brown only had four. No evidence pointing to any alternative suspect was presented by the defense.

On January 23, 1992, after less than six hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Brown of second-degree murder. After his guilty verdict, Brown told the court and spectators, “I never knew Ms. Kulakowski, and I had nothing to do with that woman’s death … I had nothing to do with this crime. I am truly innocent.” He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Two years later, in 1995, Brown requested that the bitemark swabs be re-tested, but he was told that there was insufficient material due to earlier testing. The same was said to be true for the saliva from the nightshirt.

In 2003, Brown wrote a letter to the court clerk requesting a copy of his trial records under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. He also asked for a copy of a “hidden” affidavit. An anonymous source had told Brown that a jailhouse informant named Gordon Wiggins had told the grand jury that Brown had confessed to the crime while behind bars. Nevertheless, upon receiving a written list of all statements in the case from the clerk, Brown found no record of this alleged statement.

There were, however, the four statements regarding Barry Bench’s suspicious behavior during the initial investigation. These documents, implicating Barry Bench, had never been disclosed to the defense.

From prison, Brown began drafting motions with the help of his stepfather, William Murphy.

In 2003, Brown filed a pro se motion for a new trial. In the motion, Brown alleged that incriminating statements pointing to Bench had been withheld from his attorneys, and these statements highlighted the implausibility of Bench’s claim that he had gone directly home from the bar. In response, the state said that all of the affidavits had been given to Brown’s trial counsel although there was no evidence of their production. The court decided that Brown failed to show prejudice and denied his motion on September 16, 2003.

About the period of Brown’s appeals, Murphy would later say: “I’ve lived from phone call to phone call, from one disappointment to another. Sometimes I got discouraged, but Roy always came back with another motion, with another way out. He never let me give up.”

At that point, Brown decided to directly confront Barry Bench. On December 24, 2003, Brown mailed Bench a letter from prison. The letter informed Bench about the new affidavits Brown had discovered and how they provided evidence of Bench’s guilt. Brown urged Bench to confess to the crime and warned him that DNA evidence would prove his own innocence and incriminate Bench.

In the letter, he wrote “Judges can be fooled and juries make mistakes, [but] when it comes to DNA testing there’s no mistakes.”

Five days after the letter was mailed, Barry Bench threw himself in front of an Amtrak train.

In January 2005, attorneys for the Innocence Project began representing Brown. Brown’s new lawyers requested expedited DNA testing from the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center. They discovered there were seven more saliva samples on the nightshirt that could be tested. By November of that same year, results showed all of the saliva DNA material came from a single contributor and excluded Brown.

“Whatever happens, I’ve already proven my innocence; I’m already free,” Brown exclaimed. “I may be in prison, but my spirit is free.”

Even with DNA excluding Brown, there was no direct way to compare the DNA sample to the deceased Barry Bench. Instead, law enforcement obtained a voluntary saliva sample from Bench’s biological daughter, Katherine Eckstadt. Half of her DNA was consistent with the saliva on the nightshirt which was what was expected from a child. Barry Bench’s body was later exhumed, and a sample of DNA was taken, providing further evidence that he was the source.

On December 14, 2006, the Innocence Project filed a new motion to vacate his conviction and sentence. The motion was granted, and on January 23, 2007, Brown was released from prison.

On March 5, 2007, the District Attorney for Cayuga County said Brown would not face retrial, and the prosecution dismissed Brown's charges. As he left court, Brown said “I can’t wait to play Pac-Man” just to be told by his niece that the once popular 1980s game had turned into a collector’s item.

The New York Court of Claims awarded Brown $2.6 million in compensation.

In July 2019, Brown died of unknown causes at the age of 58.

– Anna M. Lamb

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 10/3/2023
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1991
Sentence:25 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes