Framed?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 28, 2010

A little more than a half-hour later, though, officers — led by Waggett — knocked at the house abutting where the shooter had jumped the fence. Their previous attempts had gotten no response, but this time the owner, a middle-aged African-American woman named Bonnie Lacy, opened the door and said that the shooter had entered her house, stayed for about 10 minutes with her and her two children, and then left.

Inside the Lacy house, police found a glass mug that Lacy said she used to give the shooter a drink. Two fingerprints were found on it. One of those, LeBlanc and McLaughlin later testified, matched Cowans’s thumbprint.

In fact, it was not even close.

After Cowans’s exoneration, the BPD brought in a team of outside fingerprint specialists to investigate, which quickly determined that LeBlanc was aware that the prints did not match, “and concealed it all the way through trial.”

He did more than conceal it, according to a detailed report submitted to the department in March 2004 by that investigative team, headed by Ron Smith, of Ron Smith & Associates in Meridian, Mississippi. (These findings, first reported by the Phoenix in June 2005, have never been publicly released.)

LeBlanc falsely testified that he found 16 matching “points of identification” — an extremely high number, far higher than necessary under even the most rigorous standards to confirm a match. LeBlanc told the jury that the two prints were “identical.” McLaughlin also testified that the “fingerprint on the glass mug was identical to the inked impression of one Stephan Cowans.”

The Smith team concluded in its report that LeBlanc doctored a large court display of the supposed match, to deceive the jury.

A criminalist from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, asked by the BPD to review the evidence, agreed. He wrote in a memo that the fingerprint enlargements presented by LeBlanc in court “show evidence of manipulation to hide or obscure dissimilarities.”

LeBlanc had a lengthy history of alcohol-related problems, which were well-known within the department and were documented in his personnel files, according to current and former BPD officers. “He’s just off-the-wall drinking,” one says. “Did the drinking make him do it, or was he doing someone a favor? Maybe a little bit of both.”

Both LeBlanc and McLaughlin refused to speak to the AG’s investigators, invoking their fifth-amendment right against self-incrimination. McLaughlin was even offered immunity, according to documents obtained by the Phoenix, and still offered no explanations.

The AG did not attempt to discover whose fingerprints really did match the two on the glass mug, according to two sources who have seen the notes from that investigation.

That’s apparently because the authorities prosecuting the case had already found an explanation for the fingerprints — an explanation, it turns out, based on a set of documents that, unknown to those authorities, were apparently forged.

Those documents first came to light on February 10, 2004, less than three weeks after Cowans’s exoneration. As Ron Smith prepared to take the case materials from Boston to his Mississippi office to further examine them, BPD latent-fingerprint supervisor Robert Foilb informed him of a remarkable discovery, apparently made while Smith was meeting with BPD command staff. Foilb, while organizing the materials for Smith, had discovered that the erroneously identified “Cowans” thumbprint actually matched the thumbprint of Bryant McEwen, a 17-year-old resident of the Lacy house, where the glass was found.

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