Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Man wins settlement from city after cop invents fake lab report linking his DNA to scene of alleged sexual assault

Mission Santa Clara
Michael Kerkeles of San Jose was ordered to stand trial for sexual assault because a police detective wrote up a fake lab report showing that his semen was on a blanket where a developmentally disabled woman claimed she was sexually assaulted, and a prosecutor presented it to a court as a real report. Now, Mr. Kerkeles has settled a civil rights suit against San Jose and will collect $150,000 -- and his legal fees, which could top $1 million.

Mr. Kerkeles' nightmare started in 2005 when the purported victim claimed he sexually assaulted her on a blanket in his garage. Her assertions were not reliable. She told widely contradictory stories to police and a nurse about whether she had even been to Kerkeles' house, and whether he had sexually attacked her. She also told officers that a teen who previously lived nearby also had been raped at the house, an allegation the girl denied. Mr. Kerkele denied the assault.

End of case, right? Wrong. Detective Matthew Christian was assigned to question Mr. Kerkeles. What better way to trap someone into confessing than to pretend you have evidence that categorically proves he's the perpetrator? Christian typed up a report by a fictional Santa Clara County Crime Lab technician that he named "Rebecca Roberts" that showed that semen was found on a blanket taken from Kerkeles’ garage.

The District Attorney's Office lost two preliminary hearings in the case because the judge found the woman was not a competent witness and that the evidence was insufficient to hold Kerkeles over for trial. But at the third preliminary hearing, then-prosecutor Jaime Stringfield produced the ruse report, not knowing it was phony. She elicited testimony from Detective Christian, who supposedly forgot that he had faked the report, regarding its contents.

Stringfield asked: "This blanket that you seized, did you submit it to the crime lab for analysis?"

"Yes," Christian said.

"Are you aware of any results?" she asked.

"Yes. There was semen found on the blanket," Christian said.

The detective's testimony prompted Superior Court Judge Gilbert T. Brown to find there was probable cause to hold Kerkeles over for trial.

Stringfield listed Roberts, the fake analyst, among her trial witnesses, which gave the prosecution's trial strategy credibility. Prosecutors tried to bully Kerkeles into taking a plea deal.

The only reason anyone found out that the report was a fabrication was because Kerkeles’ attorney called the crime lab to ask for the technician’s resume—only to learn she didn’t exist.

On December 4, 2006, Kerkeles' attorney stated that he intended to move for dismissal based on, among other things, perjury by Christian and falsification of the lab report. On December 6, 2006 the district attorney dismissed the charges against plaintiff. In January, 2008, Kerkeles sued the city and detective Christian. That's the case that is just now settling.

What about the practice of making up evidence? City Attorney Richard Doyle says it’s OK as long as it’s used as an interrogation tool and it’s not coercive. It turns out there's even a procedure that cops use for fake evidence: normal procedure would require an officer to write the word "ruse" on such a document after it was used in an interview.

Assume that the detective actually did forget he made up the report, before the ruse was discovered, detective Christian and prosecutor Stringfield ignored several signs - beyond the fact that no one named Rebecca Roberts worked in the county lab - that could have warned them the report was a fake. The phony report claimed the crime lab had found semen on a blanket in Kerkeles' garage on the same day the blanket was seized. The report also claimed the DNA had been matched to Kerkeles. But obtaining DNA test results normally takes at least several days.

In addition, Stringfield had in her file an authentic report from a real crime lab examiner named Nancy Marte that concluded semen could not be found on the blanket.

Stringfield later would blame Kerkeles' defense attorney for not exposing the discrepancy between the two reports, both of which had been provided to the defense. (The defense attorney, Kurt Seibert, had twice asked Stringfield for more information about the two reports in 2005, but Stringfield turned down the requests, saying one was too "vague.")

Stringfield continued to claim she believes Kerkeles is guilty, and she even argued against his being declared innocent.  She's no longer a Santa Clara County prosecutor.

It is our guess that Mr. Kerkeles' ordeal was not worth $150,000, or, for that matter, any amount of money.

SOURCES:

http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_23185207/san-jose-poised-settle-case-involving-phony-lab

http://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/entries/4_26_13_fake_lab_report_settlement_alleged_rapist_police/

http://www.mercurynews.com/politics/ci_7736235?nclick_check=1

http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_19894324

Kerkeles v. City of San Jose, 199 Cal. App. 4th 1001 (2011).