A Denver man has sued Denver crime analysts claiming he was wrongly arrested and held in jail for two months for a rape charge carrying a possible life sentence after the lab workers mistakenly attached the wrong labels on containers holding DNA.
A federal civil lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of Shawnnon Hale, 26, by Denver attorneys David Lane and Eudoxie “Dunia” Dickey against Denver crime laboratory analysts Eric Duvall and Brian Pirot, claiming false arrest in violation of his Constitutional rights. The charges were dismissed and Hale was released from jail after the Denver district attorney’s office said his DNA was labeled incorrectly as being part of a rape kit taken during the investigation and said the mistake was akin to “a clerical error.”
The lawsuit says one or both of the crime lab analysts allegedly switched vials of DNA taken from a cigarette Hale had smoked with a vial taken from a man who had sex with the alleged victim, the lawsuit says.
Hale is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and a written apology.
The lawsuit accuses the forensic crime experts of “grossly negligent statements” in an evidentiary report claiming that vaginal DNA samples taken from the victim’s rape kit matched the plaintiff’s DNA “when in fact it did not.”
Lane said the lab technicians have not apologized for their mistake, but even if they eventually admit they made a mistake, there is no excuse for what they did.
“When you are in that position and someone’s fate is in your hands, honest mistakes are not tolerated,” Lane said. “You are held to a higher standard.”
Hale’s arrest stems from a meeting on July 4, 2014, between a woman who was walking her dog near her home in LoDo and a man, who was a stranger to her. She says she met the man the street and he invited her to have drinks with him at a nearby bar. The woman then invited the stranger and some of his friends including Hale up to the rooftop deck of her apartment for more alcohol.
The victim later passed out and woke up the next morning with her underwear off, vaginal pain and no memory of what had occurred on the rooftop, the lawsuit says.
“This woman claimed she was drugged,” Lane said.
The woman reported the incident to police and a rape examination was performed at a hospital including swabs of her sexual organs and lips and chin, the lawsuit says. Lab tests indicated there was male sperm on the swabs, the lawsuit says. Cigarette butts taken from the roof deck, the victim’s dress, underwear and bedding were all tested for DNA, the lawsuit says.
Police gathered surveillance footage from the victim’s apartment complex, which showed a half-dozen young men and women including Hale coming and going from the victim’s rooftop during the course of the night.
Police were able to identify a stranger, who was black, the lawsuit says. Surveillance video shows that man leaving the apartment complex with a rectangular object concealed underneath his tank top, the lawsuit says.
Although the video also showed the victim leaving the apartment with a white man, Denver police “chose to focus its investigation on the stranger, a black male, whom the victim had met earlier that night,” the lawsuit says.
Police arrested, questioned and took DNA samples from that man, but the tests excluded him as the source of the DNA found in the victim’s rape kit, the lawsuit says. Neither the man or his friends were arrested.
But after five months of investigation, Duvall and Pirot falsely claimed that there was a hit on the FBI’s DNA database, the lawsuit says. DNA found inside the victim belonged to Hale, who also was a black man, the report says. In their report, the Denver crime lab said “vaginal swabs had been matched to Shawnnon Hale.”
Denver police arrested Hale on Dec. 5, 2014. Hale admitted being at the party but “vehemently” denied any sexual contact with the victim.
When told his DNA had allegedly been found inside the victim, Hale said, “No. I’m sorry. That’s not possible.”
Hale also told detectives that during the night the victim was “lovey dovey” towards a white man and when she invited the white man into her apartment, he said “Yeah, let’s go.” She performed oral sex on him in her bedroom, Hale told the detectives.
Hale said he never entered the victim’s bedroom because he was not invited. Hale was seen leaving the apartment complex with four other people at 3:41 a.m., the lawsuit says. A sixth person was seen leaving alone at 5:19 a.m., the lawsuit says.
Denver police held Hale in jail for 61 days, the lawsuit says.
“Throughout the duration of his detainment, plaintiff steadfastly maintained that he never touched the victim and was suspicious of the alleged DNA results,” it says.
The false DNA evidence was presented to the office of Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey on Dec. 9, 2014, the lawsuit says. Formal sexual assault charges were brought against Hale. In February of 2015, a judge found sufficient evidence to bind his case to district court for trial.
But two days later, “it was exposed” that one or both of the defendants had mislabeled Hale’s DNA evidence, the lawsuit says.
“It was revealed that plaintiff was, in fact, innocent as he had claimed all along. In fact, Mr. Hale’s DNA matched DNA found on a cigarette at the scene by (Denver) investigators but did not match the DNA found inside the victim.”
Denver prosecutor Jason Kramer asked a judge to dismiss the case on Feb. 4, 2015, because the “people are unable to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.” Hale was released from jail at that time, the lawsuit says.