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Hearing held over hair evidence in 1985 Springfield rape

George Perrot was tied to a rape by an FBI analysis of a strand of hair, a method that has since been discredited.
George Perrot was tied to a rape by an FBI analysis of a strand of hair, a method that has since been discredited.

FALL RIVER — Lawyers for a convicted rapist who has served nearly 30 years in prison made their latest bid for a new trial Friday, contending that flawed expert testimony and withheld evidence led to a wrongful conviction.

George Perrot, 47, who is serving a life sentence for the 1985 rape of a 78-year-old woman in her Springfield home, has always maintained his innocence.

In his testimony against Perrot, an FBI agent had said that a single hair found at the scene was a match for the suspect, but the agency now concedes that its experts overstated the accuracy of microscopic hair analysis for decades.

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At the daylong hearing Friday in Bristol Superior Court, Cary Oien, an FBI analyst, said the agency has not used the term "matched" when referring to hair profiles since the 1990s, after concluding the "term may be misleading to people."

"Hairs are not a means of personal identification." he said. The hair in question cannot be found now for DNA testing, according to Perrot's defense lawyers.

The FBI agent had testified that the one strand of hair found on the victim's bed was "consistent with" Perrot's, according to the defense lawyers. He also testified it was "extremely rare" that he could not differentiate between hair samples from different people.

The case has other significant flaws, Perrot's lawyers say. The victim did not identify Perrot, who had grown up in her neighborhood, from a lineup, and testified that he was not the man who attacked her. She also told police she was certain that a bloodstain found on her sheet — another piece of evidence that would be used against Perrot — had been left by a sick uncle living with her years earlier who had coughed up blood.

In 2012, the FBI and the Department of Justice launched a nationwide review of potentially tainted cases, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project joined the review the following year.

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The review of Perrot's case is believed to be the first that addresses potentially flawed forensic testimony by the FBI, the Innocence Project said.

Three years after Perrot's conviction in 1987, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the verdict, saying the trial judge had allowed improper evidence to be used by prosecutors.

He was then convicted a second time in 1992.

In 2001, he was granted a new trial, but two years later his conviction was reinstated on appeal by prosecutors.

Perrot's defense team includes lawyers from Ropes & Gray LLP and the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University has been investigating his case for the past four years.

Perrot's team also contends that his defense had failed to properly challenge the hair evidence. Perrot's lawyer in his second trial, John Ferrara, now a Superior Court judge sitting in Hampden County, testified Friday that he had challenged the FBI agent's claims.

"There were some troubling aspects of his testimony, from a defense perspective," Ferrara said. "It was clear he couldn't remember a lot of details about the investigation."

As Perrot looked on intently Friday, one of his lawyers told the court that a prosecutor's handwritten notes indicated the blood stains from the scene did not match Perrot's.

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"Would that tend to be exculpatory for Mr. Perrot?" asked lead counsel Kirsten Mayer.

"Yes," Ferrara said.

Ferrara said that he did not remember much about the case, but that he had a strategy to defend Perrot against the physical evidence presented by prosecutors.

"I'm certain I did," he said.

Under questioning by Hampden County prosecutors, who are opposing the motion for a new trial, Ferrara recalled that Perrot was "very cooperative" in assisting with his defense.

The Hampden district attorney's office maintains there was enough evidence to convict Perrot without the hair analysis.

Elizabeth Ziolkowski, a specialist who performed hair analysis in the case, said standards in the field had changed markedly since the early 1990s.

"The amount of documentation has evolved over the years," she said.

Testimony in the hearing before Superior Court Judge Robert Kane is scheduled to resume on Sept. 25.


Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.