A DNA Mix-Up Involving a Washing Machine Kept a Man in Jail for 3 Years

The Louisiana case highlights how prosecutors and crime labs withhold key documents from defense lawyers, keeping some defendants in custody for months or years.

Roy Verret at his home in Jeanerette, La., with the washing machine that contributed to his murder charge.
Roy Verret at his home in Jeanerette, La., with the washing machine that contributed to his murder charge.Joseph Vidrine for The New York Times

As washing machines go, the one that contributed to Roy Verret’s capital murder charge was pretty average. White, Whirlpool, reliable. When detectives investigating a murder in Jeanerette, La., swabbed a dark spot on the lid in January 2017, he thought they were wasting their time.

“I wasn’t stressing,” Mr. Verret said in an interview. “I knew it wasn’t anything to do with Howard.”

But on April 19, 2017, detectives from the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office arrested Mr. Verret. He recalls being told that DNA testing had identified the stain on his washing machine as the blood of Howard Poche, 75, who was stabbed to death 16 months earlier. It was “99.9 percent certain” that the DNA came from Mr. Poche, according to a police report. A judge later cited this “undisputed evidence” when setting Mr. Verret’s bail at $500,000.

Mr. Verret, a 54-year-old mechanic, could not remember when he had last seen Mr. Poche, with whom he had a passing acquaintance. And so, for the next three years, as he awaited trial, Mr. Verret considered the ways Mr. Poche’s DNA might have found its way to his washing machine lid. Most of his theories involved the police or the killers planting it.

“I was in jail 37 and a half months,” he said. “Other than when I was sleeping, all I could think about was this.”

This month prosecutors dismissed the first-degree murder and armed robbery charges against Mr. Verret. This followed an evidence admissibility hearing in which his lawyer offered an explanation: A crime lab analyst had mixed up two DNA samples, one from the lid of Mr. Verret’s washing machine and the other from the knife that was used to kill Mr. Poche. This theory was supported by an expert, hired by the defense to retest the material swabbed off the machine. She testified not only that the sample did not match the victim, but also that she could not confirm the presence of human blood.

This may sound like an easy catch. But proving what had happened took much longer than it should have because the crime lab was slow to turn over the documentation to the defense, said Steve Singer, a longtime public defender who took on Mr. Verret’s case. Such a wait is not unusual, he said.

Amid a national reckoning over racism and police brutality, Mr. Singer and other public defenders said they hoped Mr. Verret’s case would draw attention to the way the criminal justice system permits people to be held in jail for months — or even years — ahead of trial because prosecutors and crime labs fail to turn over the documentation that defense lawyers require to understand what put them there.

Mr. Verret is white. But people of color who rely on public defenders are disproportionately affected, said Jonathan Rapping, the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that seeks to improve the quality of free legal defense for marginalized communities. That’s because state-appointed lawyers rarely have the time or resources to be as persistent as Mr. Singer, Mr. Rapping said.

“When you look at the protests happening, these are people realizing that when it comes to interactions with police, some lives are valueless,” he said. “That same story plays out in the courts, without cameras or a spotlight by prosecutors who are more focused on processing people to conviction than they are ensuring that their constitutional rights are respected.”

A perplexing DNA report

Initial DNA testing identified the stain on Mr. Verret’s washing machine as the blood of the victim.Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office
At the same time, tests of the documented murder weapon did not contain even a drop of the victim’s blood.Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory

Howard Poche was known around Jeanerette, a town of 5,200 people about 120 miles west of New Orleans, as the man who arrived early to church to open the doors. When he failed to show up for Christmas morning Mass in 2016, people got worried. At his house, detectives encountered a woman, who identified herself as his house cleaner, mopping up blood, according to police reports.

The woman, Michele King, who acknowledged she sometimes also had sex with Mr. Poche for drug money, initially said he had cut himself while getting out of the shower. She later confessed to witnessing his murder and said that the killers had threatened to kill her, too, if she didn’t clean up. She denied that her longtime boyfriend, Mr. Verret, was involved.

Mr. Verret and Ms. King lived together and have a teenage son. “She’s a good person,” Mr. Verret said. But they shared one vice: “She’s just a drug addict like me,” he said. (He is currently clean, he added.) Prosecutors ultimately charged Mr. Verret and Ms. King with killing Mr. Poche. (Two other men were also charged; their cases are pending.)

Mr. Singer, a former professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, became Mr. Verret’s lead counsel about five months after he was arrested, when prosecutors upgraded the charges to first-degree murder from manslaughter and committed to seeking the death penalty. At the time, Mr. Singer was working for the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, an organization that provides free representation to defendants in Louisiana death penalty cases.

The only physical evidence tying Mr. Verret to the crime was the victim’s blood on the washing machine. In early 2018, while reviewing the DNA documentation from the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory in New Iberia, La., Mr. Singer spotted some peculiarities. One, the tests to confirm that the stain on the washing machine was blood were marked as both negative and inconclusive. Stranger yet, though an analyst tested the knife supposedly used to kill Mr. Poche at the same time as the washing machine swab, Mr. Singer could not find results for the knife.

Several subpoenas of the lab failed to produce the missing material. He did not get the full report until January, three years after the knife was tested, he said. (The director of the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory said he was not able to comment because “the investigation in this matter is ongoing.”)

It is not uncommon for defense lawyers to wait months, and sometimes years, for DNA test results, fingerprints, shell casing analysis and other forensic evidence, said Terri Rosenblatt, supervising attorney of the DNA Unit at the Legal Aid Society.

“Labs are constantly testing evidence and generating paperwork documenting that testing,”Ms. Rosenblatt said. “And prosecutors, at the push of their speed dial, can get access to that testing, but the defense can’t. Our clients are the ones impacted by this. But we are at the end of a long and wrongly delayed chain of getting evidence that is critical.”

Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University, said the delays in Mr. Verret’s case were a symptom of a widespread issue. “The government should share all the information with the defense immediately, but that’s not the norm across the country,” she said.

In many jurisdictions, the prosecution is not even required to tell the defense that DNA evidence exists, Ms. Murphy said. This means that innocent people regularly take plea deals for rape and other violent offenses without ever learning that the police collected DNA evidence that points to a different suspect, she said.

Why wouldn’t a murder weapon have the victim’s blood on it?

Mr. Verret’s lawyer, Steve Singer.
Mr. Verret’s lawyer, Steve Singer.Joseph Vidrine for The New York Times

Mr. Singer was unwilling to give up on solving the forensic puzzle. Partly because this is his personality; he is notoriously persistent, a trait that has won him both praise and criticism in his career. He also happened to have an unusually light caseload for a public defender.

In October 2019, Mr. Singer caught a lucky break when he spoke to Winnie Kurowski, a forensic chemist at the Acadiana Criminalistics lab, on the phone. Prosecutors had said the knife marked as item 16 was used to slit Mr. Poche’s throat and stab him multiple times. And yet, according to Ms. Kurowski, it did not contain even a drop of the victim’s blood.

Why would item 19, the washing machine lid, contain the victim’s DNA but not item 16, the murder weapon? A theory was forming. “A 6 and a 9 look the same when they are next to each other,” Mr. Singer observed.

Mr. Singer shared the paperwork with Suzanna Ryan, an independent DNA analyst. Based on her review, she too suspected a switch and asked to retest the samples. At Pure Gold Forensics, a private lab in Redlands, Calif., she found that the only identifiable source of the DNA on the washing machine swab was not the victim, as the paperwork suggested, but Ms. King, Mr. Verret’s girlfriend. This made sense because they lived together. The only identifiable source of DNA on the knife was the victim, a detail missing from the paperwork. This reinforced that the two had been switched; the washing machine had been processed as the knife.

At a hearing on June 5, Mr. Singer and Ms. Ryan presented what they had found. Then, citing the Acadiana Criminalistics report that said, with 99.9 percent certainty, that the DNA from the swab taken from Mr. Verret’s washing machine was from Mr. Poche, Mr. Singer confronted Ms. Kurowski. “We can just toss this in the garbage until you do some retesting, right?” he said.

“Yes,” Ms. Kurowski said, according to a transcript.

Ms. Kurowski directed a request for comment to her lab supervisor, who said he could not discuss the case.

A day after the hearing, the district attorney, Bo Duhé, told The Acadiana Advocate that his office would “expeditiously review” the test results from Ms. Ryan’s lab “and make the appropriate decisions about how to proceed in this case.”

On June 8, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Mr. Verret was released from jail. (Louisiana’s 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office confirmed this development, but otherwise declined to comment.)

When he was interviewed for this article, Mr. Verret was back home, speaking from his laundry room. “I have my finger on it right now,” he said of his washing machine. “This is where it all started. This machine! Girl, you just don’t know.”

The dark smudge is long gone. He said that he suspected it came from a rabbit he shot and skinned in his yard the day before the detectives showed up and set off a sequence of events that could have ended with execution.

Reference: NYTimes

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