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staff reporter It took just two hairs to land Chris Conover in prison for life. And, as it turned out, it took the same two hairs to get him out. Conover, 48, had served 18 years in the Maryland House of Corrections for a murder he asserts he didn’t commit. Thanks to cutting-edge DNA science, he was able to prove that the hairs used as crucial evidence to convict him 15 years ago were not his. Because he moved in Baltimore drug circles he became a suspect in the murder of Charles “Squeaky” Jordan and Jordan’s 18-year-old stepdaughter, Lisa Brown, on Oct. 20, 1984. Jordan’s wife, Linda, identified Conover as one of the three men she saw kill her husband and daughter. Two hairs found on the slain young woman’s pajamas were determined by microscopic hair analysis to be Conover’s. Conover had a seemingly credible alibi. He testified that he was at a party across town all night. The story was backed up by several witnesses who had attended the party. Nevertheless, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to multiple life sentences. In 1996, after 14 years in jail, Conover contacted the Innocence Project, a New York-based organization run by Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The project researches the cases of potentially wrongfully convicted criminals. Conover told project staffers that the hairs found at the crime scene were not his. Two years later, he was accepted as a client by the Innocence Project, which set out to reinvestigate whether the hairs were Conover’s. Long search Locating the two hairs in the police files took more than a year. Under Maryland law, the Innocence Project had to apply to the court for permission to test the hairs, extending the process another two years, including the test. The DNA testing showed that the hairs were not Conover’s. After the research was concluded by the Innocence Project, they sought out a pro bono lawyer with a criminal defense background. Lee Rubin, a white-collar criminal defense and civil litigator in the Baltimore office of Chicago-based Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw took the case. “It tugged at my sense of fairness,” Rubin said. “I thought that it was a worthy case to spend time on.” Rubin said that there “was no evidence from which any rational person could conclude that he committed the crime.” Rubin and Frank Meyer, an assistant Maryland state attorney based in Baltimore who put Conover in jail 18 years ago, negotiated for six months on the terms of Conover’s release. They finally agreed on a so-called Alford plea, in which Conover acknowledged the weight of the evidence against him but didn’t admit guilt. He pleaded guilty to robbery with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to time served. Throughout the case, Rubin had a clear goal in mind. “My job was to exonerate him at trial or to get him out of jail in a way that he could live with and that’s what we did,” he said. Meyer said his goal throughout the process was “to get to the truth.” Conover’s case underscores a major trend in reversing convictions: reviews of cases in which microscopic hair analysis provided substantial evidence. Since the inauguration of DNA testing, traditional microscopic hair analysis-which involves the use of 20 aspects of a hair sample including the structure and color to discern its origin-has increasingly come under attack and is no longer used in court to identify individuals, according to an academic expert. “It’s much too unscientifically subjective,” said the expert, James E. Starrs, professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University in Washington. Starrs said the outcome of the test is overwhelmingly reliant on the scientist performing it. “If they’re angry in the morning, it could be a match,” he said. “If they’re friendly, it could be a nonmatch.” Altmann’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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