George Perrot has spent 29 years in prison for a rape he always said he did not commit. Until recently, it looked like he would die there.
Now, a single strand of hair stands between him and freedom. And that slender manacle may just have been snapped by federal authorities.
Even if you believe he’s guilty — as Hampden County prosecutors say they still do — there is plenty in Perrot’s case to trouble even the hardest of hard-liners, to shake our trust in those who are supposed to protect us.
Perrot was 17 in the fall of 1985. A series of horrendous attacks on elderly women in Springfield had begun the previous year, and police believed the crimes were connected. Some women were raped more than once; on Nov. 30, one of them, aged 78, was raped for the third time in 18 months.
Back then, Perrot was every parent’s nightmare, committing crimes and using drugs. Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1985, he was arrested for breaking into a house in the 78-year-old’s (and his) neighborhood and for snatching a purse at a nearby Denny’s. Because of the way he broke into the house, investigators suspected he was also responsible for all of the rapes.
His attorneys say Perrot was incoherent and high during the interrogation, which extended over 12 hours and was not recorded. The minor had no parents or attorney present. At one point, Perrot began to cry and asked for a gun so he could shoot himself. Prosecutors say this suggested he knew he had been found out. Defense attorneys say it showed he was exhausted and at the point where he would have agreed to anything.
An hour later, prosecutors said, Perrot signed a confession saying he had broken into the 78-year-old’s house on the night of the rape, though he always denied the sexual assault. He has no recollection of signing the confession, and says he wasn’t in the woman’s home.
None of the three women attacked in those weeks, each of whom had been raped before, picked Perrot out of a line-up (and tests on semen found at the scene of another of the rapes excluded him). Defense attorneys say the victims failed to pick him even though the line-up, which included five easily-identifiable police officers, was highly suggestive. None of the men in the line-up fit the description the 78-year-old had given. The woman had known Perrot, who lived on her street, since he was small. She said her attacker was clean-shaven. Perrot had a shaggy moustache and goatee.
“How can I say it was [Perrot]?” she said at trial. “This fellow [who attacked me] didn’t have any beard. He didn’t have any mustache.”
A footprint left on an earlier rape victim’s door was not Perrot’s size. A palm print found on the window of another rape victim’s house he was initially accused of breaking into that night did not match his. On the stand, the victim said somebody added a paragraph to her statement after she signed it.
But the prosecution team said they had a strong link between Perrot and the attack on the woman (he was charged only with that one rape), something that proved he was in her bedroom that night. Though the attack took place on the floor, investigators said they found a single strand of hair on her bed, and that the hair belonged to Perrot.
At trial, the prosecution had an unimpeachable expert witness in FBI special agent Wayne Oakes, who testified that the single hair was a match for Perrot. He could tell hairs apart the way other people could distinguish faces, he told the court. Only someone “with a lesser amount of training” would disagree. It was pretty convincing, given the fact that the rest of the case was largely circumstantial.
It was also, we now know, rubbish.
After decades of presenting microscopic hair analysis as if it were a conclusive way of identifying people, the FBI now acknowledges its massive limitations. Nobody can identify a particular person as the source of a hair, or even say whether a match is probable. The FBI now concedes that its own agents’ hair analysis testimony — a factor in hundreds of convictions, including some capital ones — exceeded the limits of science.
There’s no getting around the fact that, without the falsely incriminating power of that single hair, things would have gone very differently.
Prosecutor Francis W. Bloom went even further than Oakes.
“When George Perrot was there . . . he left something behind,” Bloom told the jury. “He left some of his hair and left some of his blood.”
The inconclusive blood test results, and questions over where the blood came from, made that part of the case against Perrot weaker. The hair evidence seemed rock solid. Perrot could be innocent only if police had planted his hair at the scene, Bloom told the jury. It would have to be “a conspiracy you can’t believe.”
That was, we now know, a false choice.
And there was much more to shake your faith in the law. After Perrot’s first trial, it was discovered that Bloom had fabricated a written confession, forging the signatures of Perrot and a detective, to trick two of Perrot’s friends into admitting they helped him rob and rape one of the victims. Prosecutors are pretty well protected in these situations, so Bloom got only a public censure for the fake confession and forgery, though a judge called his conduct “outrageous” and “reprehensible.”
And this wasn’t Bloom’s only transgression. In 1986, the Supreme Judicial court threw out a first-degree murder conviction against a man who had shot his mother’s fiance because of Bloom’s misconduct during the trial. In 2013, Mark Schand’s murder conviction was overturned after he spent 27 years in prison. Witnesses recanting eyewitness identifications in that 1986 case said Bloom had offered them leniency in exchange for false testimony.
Bloom is now a personal injury attorney. His website says he “offers top notch representation for persons severely injured by the negligence of others.” He declined an invitation to speak about those injured by him.
Perrot’s attorneys alleged prosecutorial misconduct in his second trial, too (he was granted a new one after a judge agreed some evidence from his first should have been deemed inadmissable). In that one, the assistant district attorney who succeeded Bloom gave an incendiary closing argument in which he told the jury that, while Perrot was presumed innocent at the start of the trial, “he is not any longer.”
Actually, he is presumed innocent until the jury finds him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A Superior Court judge later found that those comments created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice (the decision was later overturned).
Over the years, Perrot and his attorneys have tried many times to have his conviction overturned. Most recently, his case has been taken on by Kirsten Mayer and other attorneys from Ropes & Gray; The Innocence Project; and The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Until now, none of the egregious and appalling irregularities in this case has proved enough. It all kept coming back to the hair. Now that hair may free him. Last October, the Department of Justice sent a letter flagging his case as one that involved the bogus hair analysis testimony, suggesting it merited re-examination.
And so on Friday, Perrot gets yet another day in court — the first hearing anywhere in a case that turns on hair testimony the FBI tagged as flawed. In arguing for a new trial, his attorneys will argue that without the hair analysis, the case against him falls apart.
According to their brief, the Hampden County DA’s office continues to maintain there was enough evidence to convict without the hair analysis, and that Perrot has no right to re-argue matters courts have already settled. The brief also claims Oakes’s hair testimony wasn’t as misleading as Perrot’s attorneys (and the FBI) claim.
“Two juries in the Superior court in Springfield and two judges in the Superior court in Springfield and the Appeals court for the Commonwealth and the SJC have reviewed this case and upheld the defendant’s convictions,” said legal counsel Elizabeth Dunphy Farris, who has been assigned to the case.
But there’s no getting around the fact that, without the falsely incriminating power of that single hair, things would have gone very differently. No matter what you make of his claim of innocence, Perrot deserves a new, clean trial. The justice system depends on the integrity of every single case, no matter how unsavory the defendant. And integrity was conspicuously, appallingly absent in the sorry prosecution of George Perrot.Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.