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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 had been 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. The following month, on September 2, 2003, an officer stopped a car containing Nina Porter and 44-year-old Lana Canen. Porter was given a traffic ticket and left. Canen was arrested on an outstanding warrant. Detective Carl Conway learned that Porter and Canen lived in the same building as Sailor and first questioned Porter. Conway said Porter claimed that Canen had made statements that suggested Canen was involved in the murder. Conway said Porter also said that Canen spent a lot of time with 28-year-old Andrew Royer, who also lived in the same building, and they took drugs together. Police then interviewed Canen. She denied any involvement in the crime and was released.
On September 3, 2003, detectives brought in Royer, a mentally-handicapped resident of the building where Sailor was killed. Conway said that during the interrogation, Royer gave two different statements over the course of two days of interrogation. In the first version, he said that he and Canen went to Sailor's apartment to ask Sailor for money and that they killed her when she refused. In the second version, Royer said he and Canen went to the apartment, Sailor gave Canen some money, and they left. He said he returned to the apartment alone that evening, asked for more money, and killed Sailor when she refused.
About three and a half hours into the interrogation, Conway noted that Royer was becoming “mentally fatigued" and having “a very hard time maintaining his concentration." As a result, Conway decided to turn on a tape recorder. Royer said he visited Canen on the day of the crime and went nowhere else. Conway said that Royer had said during the prior “interview" that he went to visit Sailor. Conway then asked a series of leading questions.
Conway: “And was it Lana's suggestion that you guys go to Helen's?"
Conway: “So, you and Lana went to Helen's, did you guys see Helen?"
Royer: “Yes, we seen her.
Conway: “And did you guys go inside the apartment?"
Royer: “Yes, we went into the apartment."
Conway: “Did Lana ask Helen for money?"
After a few moments of silence, Royer said: “Uh. Lana. Yah. Lana asked Helen for money."
The interrogation continued and not long after, Royer was arrested. Conway interviewed Royer again the following day, September 4, 2003. He gave yet another version—that he visited Sailor alone and killed her because she started “preaching" at him. Royer gave a second recorded statement during which he said he sold Sailor's jewelry at a pawn shop. The pawn shop, however, had no record of such a transaction.
While some residents of the building expressed relief, others were skeptical that Royer was the killer because of his usually placid demeanor.
In June 2004, while Royer's case was pending, his trial was delayed for three separate mental competency examinations. His mother said that he had the mind of a 12-year-old. During that time, Royer also gave a statement to Detective Mark Daggy. Accompanied by his defense lawyer, Royer denied involvement in the crime. He said that on Thanksgiving Day he attended a Thanksgiving meal and returned to his apartment. He left to buy beer at Martin's Super Market. Daggy discounted the statement after he subsequently learned that the market was closed on Thanksgiving.
Not long after, police renewed their focus on Canen. One of the investigating officers believed that Canen had previously burglarized apartments in the building, although there was no proof. Police interviewed Porter, who said 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 tub containing pill bottles 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 reported, "Based on my experience as a fingerprint examiner with the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1976 to 1978 and my continued examination of fingerprints with the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department, the latent print from the med tub is the left little finger of Lana Canen."
Canen was then charged with murder.
Royer and Canen were tried jointly in Elkhart County Circuit Court. The primary evidence against Royer was his confession. The principal evidence against Canen was the fingerprint and the testimony of Porter. The prosecution used the same evidence against both Royer and Canen to obtain their convictions
Porter testified that she and Canen were visiting each other and drinking together on July 3, 2003. During the course of the evening, Canen stated, “No one was supposed to get hurt." Porter also testified that Canen said, “Thanksgiving, thanks for giving death." Porter told the jury that she met Royer through Canen and that Royer was easily influenced by Canen. As an example, Porter said that when Canen asked Royer to stand outside in the rain without an umbrella for a half-hour, Royer followed her instructions without question.
Conway testified about the interrogation of Royer and how Porter had implicated Canen. Conway said that Royer acted out how he strangled Sailor and “openly admitted he committed the homicide." Conway said that during the questioning before the recorder was turned on, Royer said, “I know if I tell you what I did, I am going to get in a lot of trouble." Conway also said Royer knew details about the crime that had not been made public. Conway denied feeding any information to Royer.
Chapman testified that “the latent print from the med tub is the left little finger of Lana Canen."
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. Dr. John Courtney, a psychologist who examined Royer for the defense, suggested prior to trial that Royer's defense attorney consider consulting an expert on false confessions. However, he did not.
On August 10, 2005, the jury convicted Royer and Canen of murder. They were each sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Their convictions were upheld by the Court of Appeals of Indiana
In 2007, Royer filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial, claiming that his trial attorney provided an inadequate legal defense, primarily because he did not obtain a false confession expert. During a hearing held in 2011, Dr. Richard Leo, a false confession expert, testified that Royer's interrogation shared a number of characteristics with interrogations resulting in false confessions, including factual inconsistencies between the confession and facts presented at trial, as well as the duration and environment of Royer's interrogations.
Royer's trial defense attorney said that although he received names of false confession experts from Dr. Courtney, he did not consult with them. Instead, he said he focused on whether Royer was given his antipsychotic medication prior to the interrogation, as well as how Royer came across in the recordings of his confession. In addition, since the prosecution's theory was that Canen influenced Royer to commit the crime, it was important for the defense not to portray Royer as someone easily susceptible to influence, including by police. The defense lawyer also said that juries in that county were generally skeptical of expert witnesses.
On May 17, 2011, the post-conviction motion was denied. The judge ruled the defense lawyer made a “reasonable, informed, and strategic choice to forego consulting with and offering testimony from false confession experts." The denial was upheld on appeal.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Canen filed a pro se post-conviction petition and attorney Cara Schaefer Wieneke was appointed to represent her. Wieneke requested that the prosecution provide access to the fingerprint evidence so that a private expert could evaluate it, 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 a second time, 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, Kathleen Bright-Birnbaum, who concluded that Canen's finger was not the source of the print on the plastic tub.
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, Porter, who recanted her testimony that Canen had made incriminating statements. At a deposition prior to the hearing, Porter 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 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. Under questioning by the prosecutor, Chapman stated:
Q: Did it ever occur to you that you weren't qualified to do this comparison?
Q: Did you tell anyone?
Q: Why did you do it?
Chapman stated that he had wanted 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 moved 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 Chapman and Daggy. The lawsuit was later dismissed. In 2019, after Indiana passed a statute authorizing compensation to exonerated indivduals, Canen filed a claim.
In 2019, Royer filed a successive post-conviction petition. He was represented by Elliot Slosar, of the Exoneration Project and the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic, Notre Dame law students, and Frances Watson of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law.
At a hearing in October 2019, Royer's team presented evidence that the police chief had removed Conway from the homicide unit prior to Royer's trial because the detective gave false information to an attorney in another murder case. That removal was not disclosed to the defense prior to Royer's trial.
Porter also testified at the hearing that she did not volunteer any information about the Sailor case during the traffic stop. She said that Conway contacted her soon after the traffic stop and falsely said she had an outstanding warrant. She said that she implicated Canen in the murder after Conway threatened her with prison time and the removal of her children unless she cooperated. She also said Conway fed her information about the murder during unrecorded portions of her interview. In addition, Porter revealed that she had been told of a $2,000 reward prior to testifying and that she was paid the money after she testified—neither of which was disclosed to the defense at the time of the trial.
Detective Conway testified at the hearing and admitted that he fed Royer details during the non-recorded interrogation session, and that he suggested during his interrogation of Royer that Royer had struck Sailor, that a substance had been poured on her, and that towels had been thrown away. Conway also admitted that he knew that some of the details Royer gave did not match the physical evidence.
Detective Daggy testified that he watched portions of Conway's initial interrogation of Royer through a closed-circuit video monitor. He said that Conway's interrogation was “super leading" and “[p]robably one of the most difficult" interrogations he had ever watched.
Daggy also acknowledged that he had a conversation with a retired Elkhart police officer back at the time. The defense team claimed in a filing that the conversation had been recorded and that Daggy said the interrogation was one of “the worst interrogations" he had ever seen. Daggy said he was so concerned about Conway's leading questions that he thought others would conclude the interrogation was coercive.
On March 31, 2020, Kosciusko Circuit Court Judge Joe Sutton issued a 55-page ruling granting Royer a new trial. Judge Sutton ruled that the prosecution had failed to disclose both that Conway had been removed from the homicide squad and that Porter had been promised and then paid a $2,000 reward for her testimony. Judge Sutton said that Porter's recantation of her trial testimony was credible.
The judge ruled that Royer's confession was unreliable and involuntary. Conway discounted Royer's mental deficiencies and fed Royer information during the interrogation, the judge ruled. Judge Sutton said that Conway's admissions during the hearing that he fed details to Royer “were directly contrary to the testimony he provided at the 2005 trial." Judge Sutton ordered the confession suppressed and inadmissible at a retrial.
The court also ruled that the false fingerprint evidence had a direct impact on Royer's conviction. Judge Sutton ruled, “The Court finds that Chapman's false testimony that the latent left at the scene matched Ms. Canen was material to the State's case against Mr. Royer at trial…the state repeatedly argued to the jury that the latent print match to Canen corroborated the statements from Mr. Royer."
On April 2, 2020, Royer was released on bond pending a retrial. The prosecution appealed Judge Sutton's ruling. On April 8, 2021, the Court of Appeals of Indiana upheld the ruling granting Royer a new trial. “Simply put, Royer did not receive a fair criminal trial," the appeals court declared.
The Indiana Court of Appeals also determined that Detective Conway committed perjury during the trial. The court said that “Detective Conway withheld the truth when he attempted to bolster the reliability of Royer's confessions by saying Royer knew details about the murder which were not known to the public. Thus, we hold that Royer was entitled to post-conviction relief due to Detective Conway's misrepresentation to the jury that he did not feed information about the crime to Royer and the State's reliance on Detective Conway's denial during its closing argument to implicate Royer."
On July 19, 2021, the prosecution dismissed Royer's case. Royer's exoneration culminated years-long collaboration by the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic, IU McKinney Wrongful Conviction Clinic, and the Exoneration Project.
On September 13, 2021, Elkhart Police Chief Kris Seymore submitted a letter to the city's Police Merit Commission, requesting Conway be fired for “immoral conduct" and “conduct injurious to the public peace or welfare."
In October 2021, Conway resigned. In March 2022, Royer filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Conway, the City of Elkhart, and other parties, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.
– Maurice Possley
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.