Santa Clara County checks old criminal cases for missteps

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Nearly two decades ago, faulty microscopic hair comparison science and false testimony in a child kidnapping and sexual assault case in Santa Clara County sent an innocent San Jose man to prison for 15 years.

Three months ago, Santa Clara County Superior Court wiped the conviction off Glenn Payne’s record and the district attorney dismissed all charges against the 55-year-old.

Payne’s case is the first microscopic hair comparison dismissal in a California state court, but it’s unlikely the last.

Payne was convicted in 1991 of molesting a 2-year-old girl following a trial where a Santa Clara County criminalist testified that a hair strand found on Payne must have come from the young victim.Criminalist Mark Moriyama said there was only one chance in 129,600 that it had come from someone else.

But, in fact, Moriyama’s statistics were based on an outdated study that had never been uniformly accepted by forensic hair experts. Moriyama also testified in eight other cases where microscopic hair comparison was used. Those cases are currently under review along with thousands more that were tried in Santa Clara County and elsewhere. 

Payne’s ordeal started in May 1987 when a 2-year-old San Jose girl was discovered missing from her home. Soon after, she was found down the block laying on a sidewalk covered in feces, grass and leaves. Her clothes were torn and stained. 

Although she was interviewed by police, her age prevented her from accurately describing the circumstance that led to her disappearance. Payne became a suspect when police elicited statements that the perpetrator was the “the black man who lived next door” who wore a baseball cap.

That neighbor was 28-year-old Payne, who lived with his mother across the street from girl’s family and was often seen wearing a baseball cap. From the very start, Payne denied any involvement, but he was arrested and during booking forced to undress over a large sheet, from which a dark hair was recovered. 

Using microscopic hair comparison, that hair was examined and criminalist Moriyama concluded that it could have come from the little girl.

A hair was also extracted from the girl’s underwear and a pink tablecloth that she had come in contact with the night she went missing. A hair found on the tablecloth was deemed to be consistent with Payne’s hair.

Payne went to prison, where he served 15 years of his 27-year sentence before he was paroled in 2005. But his nightmare wasn’t over. He had to register as a sex offender, which made finding jobs and housing difficult until his record was whiped clean earlier this year. 

Although Payne always claimed he was innocent, it wasn’t until 2016 when the Northern California Innocence Project, recovered the trial transcript and determined the criminalist’s testimony was invalid. A medical expert also reviewed the case and found the girl was not sexually abused or injured and that the girl had an infection that was misidentified as evidence of sexual abuse.

Santa Clara County wants to make sure this never happens again and is also working to right any past wrongs. 

In an unusual move, the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit is reviewing every single case that was ever tried in the county where an inmate remains incarcerated. Some of those cases date back to the 1970s. 

Over the next six months to a year, roughly 4,000 files will be electronically scanned and then searched for the words “hair,’’ “microscopic hair” or other key words that would allow them to find the relevant crime lab report. 

Reports will then be reviewed to make absolute certain that the science behind the testimony was correct and that justice was served, said David Angel, an assistant district attorney, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit, the first of its kind when it was founded in 2004. 

“If there are changes in science, such that a result that we had before is no longer accurate or truthful, as in Mr. Payne’s case, and the trial itself is no longer deemed fair, then it’s our goal to find those and fix them,’’ said Angel. 

Angel admits the file scanning project will be a “very time consuming and difficult job,’’ but said his unit is trying to be proactive to avoid mistakes rather than be reactive to past errors. 

“When an airplane crashes we don’t immediately say the pilot was deliberately trying to crash the plane,’’ he said. “We try and look at it and say: ‘well, what was the problem?’ “And if there was pilot error, lets figure out what it is and how can we reduce that risk. I think this is the same model. We have a criminal justice system and we all know there are flaws in it.”

Linda Starr, the director of the Northern California Innocence Project, who works with units around the north part of the state, believes in the work Santa Clara’s unit is doing. 

“I believe they are genuinely interested in doing the right thing,’’ Starr said. “When (Angel) is convinced there is an error or justice has not been served, he goes out of his way to work with us to remedy that.”

The problems with microscopic hair analysis was not only confined to cases that were tried in Santa Clara County. 

In 2015, former FBI Director James Comey sent letters to governors admitting flaws in the way the FBI trained state hair examiners, and urging states to conduct a review of hair microscopy cases in their state. 
The FBI admitted that between 1985 and 2000, FBI hair examiners improperly testified in 95 percent of cases involving hair microscopy. 

The Northern California Innocence Project and a coalition of other groups are currently reviewing nearly 300 cases in Northern California where there may have been hair analysis used.