Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Barry Laughman

Other Pennsylvania False Confession Cases
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Barry_Laughman%20(1).jpg
Barry Laughman was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering his neighbor in 1988. After serving 16 years of his sentence, DNA testing on vaginal swabs proved that Laughman had not committed the rape/murder. Though he was released in November 2003, he was finally exonerated on August 26, 2004.

The Crime
On August 13, 1987, the victim was found dead in her home. She had been raped and suffocated with pills that had been forced down her throat. Police were initially looking for a stranger that was seen walking through back yards in the area that day. However, the police focused on 24-year-old Barry Laughman, a neighbor whose pinkie finger couldn’t bend properly. Police suspected that this injury could have been sustained during the commission of the crime.
 
The Confession
Laughman had an IQ of 70 and was said to be functioning at the level of a 10-year-old. Several weeks after the crime, Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Jack Holtz interrogated Laughman and told him that a fingerprint found on a cigarette pack in the victim's house had a whorl pattern. Holtz then showed Laughman that he had a whorl pattern on his right index finger. Holtz failed to mention to Laughman that approximately 30% of all human fingerprint patterns are whorls, that fingerprint examiners do not rely on gross patterns like whorls to make identifications, that the chance of any person having at least one whorl pattern on their ten fingers was high, and that the fact that Laughman had a whorl pattern on one finger was entirely unsurprising and almost valueless in connecting him to the crime. Laughman then confessed.

There were numerous discrepancies between the crime scene and his confession, such as his explanation of his point of entry conflicting with a seemingly undisturbed window at the scene. He also stated that he had killed the victim on August 12, but a neighbor reported seeing her in her yard on the morning of August 13.
 
The Biological Evidence
The Pennsylvania State Police conducted serology testing on semen found on the victim’s vaginal swabs and found evidence of Type A blood, either from the victim or the perpetrator. The victim was a type A secretor and Laughman is a type B secretor. The police chemist testified correctly at trial that the victim’s profile could have masked Laughman’s profile. The analyst testified incorrectly, however,  that bacterial degradation could have changed type A blood to type B or vice versa.
 
Post-Conviction
PCR/DQ Alpha DNA testing was attempted in 1993 by Cellmark Diagnostics on the vaginal swabs collected from the victim but results were inconclusive.

In 2003, Harrisburg Patriot-News investigative reporter Pete Shellem wrote articles tying the Laughman investigation to three state police troopers who were accused of misconduct that resulted in false evidence. As part of Shellem's investigation, he tracked down the biological evidence samples that were believed to have been lost. Shellem learned that the samples had been turned over to Laughman's attorneys and ultimately were sent to a Penn State University professor, Mark Stoneking, who was teaching in Leipzig, Germany. Stoneking still had the samples and provided them to David J. Foster, of Costopoulos, Foster & Fields, who was representing Laughman.

In November 2003, Orchid Cellmark performed Y-STR DNA testing and reported that Laughman had been excluded. He was released from prison under supervised house arrest, but the district attorney still planned to press charges.

On August 26, 2004, however, Adams County District Attorney Shawn C. Wagner dismisssed the charges against Laughman.

In 2021, police arrested Chris Speelman and charged him with murder. They said genetic genealogy led them to Speelman, who lived next to Edna Laughman but was never interviewed in the initial investigation.
 
Summary courtesy of the Innocence Project, http://www.innocenceproject.org/. Reproduced with permission.

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 1/6/2023
State:Pennsylvania
County:Adams
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1988
Exonerated:2004
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes