On July 4, 2014, Shawnnon Hale sat in a Denver area bar, drinking with a group of friends. Little did he know that day would lead him to file a lawsuit against two crime lab investigators two years later.
At one point that Independence Day, one of his friends, accompanied by a woman, joined the group.
Hale had never met the woman before; none of them had. Nonetheless, she invited the whole group to the rooftop of her apartment complex to watch fireworks explode over the Denver skyline.
There, everyone milled around, smoking cigarettes, drinking and talking.
“I had never met her,” Hale said. “We went there; everyone was talking and drinking; everyone was having a good time watching the fireworks.”
Hale left the complex at 3:41 a.m. with four of his friends and likely didn’t think about the night again. Until December, when the phone at his grandmother’s house, where he lived, rang — it was the police, who wanted to question him about that night.
The woman his friend had brought to the bar had been sexually assaulted at the party.
“They said they wanted me there at 10, and I said fine,” Hale told the Denver Post. “I was running late. The next thing I know, they’re at the door, pushing my grandmother aside and putting handcuffs on me.”
He was arrested.
The detective “said I did it; everyone kept telling me I was going to get life,” Hale said. “After they questioned me, I waited until I got back to my cell, and I just broke down and started to cry. … I was thinking I was never going to have children. … I was thinking that my life was over.”
The police were so sure he had assaulted the woman because they had DNA evidence linking sperm from the vagina of the woman, who was not named, to Hale. His DNA was taken from a cigarette butt found on that rooftop — they had tested several of them.
When he was told this, Hale’s lawyers claim he said, “No, that’s not possible.”
Hale was charged with felony rape, and the 24-year-old spent 61 days in jail.
He remained there until the day came when the case against him was dismissed at the request of Denver prosecutor Jason Kramer, and Hale was unceremoniously released.
“They said just pack up all my stuff and go,” he said.
The laboratory technicians had apparently mixed up DNA samples.
As the Denver Post reported in 2015:
According to a statement released by Denver police, the initial investigation indicated that Hale’s DNA matched DNA directly related to the assault.
As part of the ongoing investigation, police, following standard procedure, obtained a confirmatory DNA sample. However, according to the news release, police later discovered that Hale’s DNA had been identified improperly by the laboratory technician.
Hale’s DNA was found at the scene, police said, but the DNA evidence did not implicate him in the sexual assault.
Still, his two months in jail left emotional scars, at least on his grandmother, Juanita Jackson.
Hale’s arrest “made me angry; they were talking about him getting life,” Jackson said. “You know that hurt. … I ain’t been right since.”
On Monday, the now 26-year-old Hale via his lawyers David Lane and Eudoxie “Dunia” Dickey filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado against Eric Duvall and Brian Pirot — the two Denver Police Department crime lab investigators — for “reckless and/or grossly negligent statements made in an evidentiary report which falsely claimed that vagina DNA samples taken from a victim’s rape kit allegedly matched that of the Plaintiff, when in fact it did not.”
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and a written apology.
“When you are in that position and someone’s fate is in your hands, honest mistakes are not tolerated,” Lane told the Denver Post. “You are held to a higher standard.”
In addition to what occurred at the laboratory, the complaint seems to question the police department’s investigation, implying that its methods were influenced by race.
Hale is black. Hale’s friend — who had met the woman earlier that day — told police that once they arrived at the party, the woman seemed interested in a white male who was there.
Hale concurred, telling police that at the party, the woman performed oral sex on the white male and was “lovey dovey” toward him.
The complaint states, “The surveillance footage also showed the victim leaving the apartment rooftop with a white male at approximately 3:00 a.m. Nevertheless, the Denver Police Department chose to focus its investigation on the stranger, a black male, whom the victim had met earlier that night.”
Neither the Denver Police Department nor either laboratory technician named in the suit have offered a public statement about the complaint.