One Life Lost ... Another Life Wasted
When 13-year-old John Eddie Mitchell was bludgeoned to death on September 12, 1970, investigators and prosecutors in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania spared no effort to convict 14-year-old Steven Crawford -- altered reports, junk science, manipulated and perjured testimony and lost evidence. Steven Crawford has spent the past 28 years in prison, even though authorities identified Mitchell's killers 25 years ago. The State has a conviction, and will fight all efforts to reverse it.
Pete Shellem is a reporter for the Harrisburg, PA Patriot-News and as such, he has followed Steven Crawford's story for many years. His reports presented here paint a frightening picture of perverted justice.
April 29, 2002 Update: A Dauphin County judge made it clear he wasn't buying prosecutors' arguments that a man imprisoned 28 years for murder was barred from appeals because his lawyer didn't ask what state police crossed out in a lab report. Click HERE for details.
February 3, 2002
by Pete Shellem
Last year, lawyers for convicted killer Steven Crawford found a copy of a secret police lab report that appeared to support his claims of innocence in a 1970 murder.
The report, found in a briefcase belonging to an investigator, flatly contradicted the trial testimony of the forensic chemist who had examined a blood-specked palm print, the only physical evidence in the case.
Click HERE to view the unaltered and altered reports.
say another copy of the lab report,
found recently in the state police archives, was altered in an attempt
filed Friday, lawyers Jerry J. Russo and Joshua D. Lock asked Dauphin County
Court to let them question the chemist,
"We merely are seeking to determine the truth," Russo said. "I hope this case doesn't get any dirtier ..."
Crawford has spent the last 28 years in prison. He was convicted
in the Sept. 12, 1970, murder of Mitchell, whose battered body was
Crawford to the scene of the crime by
analyzing microscopic flecks of blood on a palm print he left on a car
and their testimony, was contradicted by a photocopy of Roadcap's report,
which surfaced in May after two youths in
The report, made during a chemical test for the presence of blood, said "numerous particles in the valleys also gave positive reactions," which would support defense contentions that blood was spattered across an existing print.
Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. asked state police for the original report,
the phrase about the particles in the valleys
A review of
two years of Roadcap's reports surrounding the time period of the 1972
blood test showed no others were blacked out
other notations by Roadcap call into question whether the microscopic flecks
Crawford's palm print were even
Marsico's office conceded last month that Crawford, 45, deserved a hearing based on the discovery of the notes and defense contentions about their meaning.
However, Marsico now says he can offer explanations for all the contradictions.
He declined to detail the explanations, saying he would do so in an answer to the petition to free Crawfordordered Friday by President Judge Joseph H. Kleinfelter and at a hearing scheduled March 7.
"We have conducted
an extensive investigation into this matter including detailing two deputy
district attorneys to it to ensure
It was not clear when the notes were changed. Marsico said it wasn't recently, but he would not elaborate.
about the blood being only on the ridges led nationally recognized blood-spatter
expert Herbert MacDonell to
Last month, after being advised of Roadcap's lab notes, MacDonell said the blood had no evidentiary value because it could have been splattered across an existing print.
Last week, however, MacDonell said the specks were too small to be blood spatter and should have been the same size as particles on the ridges.
He said his opinion has changed with the different evidence he has been presented and that the latest is based on what he was told of Roadcap's explanation by Chief Deputy District Attorney Francis T. Chardo.
He said he could make definite conclusions if he examined the original print but was told it was lost when it was sent out for DNA testing in 1996.
The Patriot-News in November that particles she observed in the valleys
were so small they couldn't be seen unless
her trial testimony she said her microscope was only 100 power and that
when she was observing the particles on the
She said she
did not mention the particles in the valleys because she didn't want investigators
to ask her to test them. Yet Simpson
In their petition,
Lock and Russo also ask that Roadcap be advised of her right to remain
silent, if she has said anything that
On the back
of the original report are notes on other tests Roadcap performed. The
first test -- a benzidine test -- only detects the
A test to confirm that the substance is blood -- called a Takayama test -- was performed in 1974. At trial, Roadcap said she put some of the flecks in the solution and waited three hours before getting a positive reaction.
at the trial, including MacDonell, who was testifying for the prosecution,
said if the reaction did not occur within 30
Roadcap's notes indicated she let the test sit overnight before receiving a reaction.
Last week, MacDonell said any substance would give a positive reaction if left that long.
Roadcap did not return a telephone call last week. Marsico said it was unlikely that she would comment.
Crawfordwas first convicted in 1974, but the case was sent back twice because of trial errors.
Before his third trial, Crawford rejected a deal in 1978 that would have set him free on time served.
Former Dauphin County President Judge John C. Dowling, who heard the case against Crawford twice, told The Patriot-News last month that Crawford deserved a new trial.
of the 500 block of Curtin Street, disappeared while making his Saturday
newspaper collections for The Patriot-News on
Police searched all the garages and found Mitchell's body stuffed under a car in Crawford's father's garage.
In 1997, Frederick
Kaeppel, who lived in the neighborhood at the time, told investigators
he lured Mitchell into the garage, where
Crawfordis serving life without parole at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy.
Crawford's sister, Harrisburg City Councilwoman Linda Thompson, urged Marsico to free her brother.
"It is easy
to do justice," Thompson said. "It is harder to do right, and I'm asking
him to do right by my brother and my entire
The Tortured History of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Steven Crawford
Saturday, Sept. 12, 1970 seemed like any other day in Crawford and Mitchell’s neighborhood around North Fifth and Curtin streets, where the two frequently played together.
Mitchell, who had turned 13 the day before, ate breakfast, then made his collections for his Patriot-News route.
Meanwhile Crawford, 14 at the time, went to a neighbor’s house to work on a go-cart while his parents were grocery shopping.
Crawford left Roy Lewis, a man who taught neighborhood children bible studies, several times to look for a gas can and buy gas for the go-cart. They both said they saw Mitchell at some point during the day.
Mitchell returned home around noon to count his money and left to go pay his supervisor at an office on Atlas Street. That was the last time anyone saw him alive.
A man painting a garage on Atlas Street said he saw Crawford walk by with another black youth he couldn’t identify sometime around 1 p.m.
That evening, Crawford, his two brothers and two friends came to Mitchell’s house looking for him. When Mitchell’s sisters told them he had not come home since the afternoon, the boys joked he had been picked up by a car and “ditched.”
One of the boys, not Crawford, said “your brother’s dead.” They then began searching around the neighborhood with flashlights, calling out Mitchell’s nickname “Honey.”
Mitchell’s parents, Betty and John Sr., were gone most of the day and left for a wedding reception about 6:30 p.m.
When they returned around 10:30 p.m. and their son still wasn’t home, they began calling the neighbors and driving around the neighborhood. They reported him missing to police around 11 p.m.
They searched until after 1:30 a.m. and resumed early the next morning.
Sometime that morning, Crawford’s neighbor, Leroy Burns, took his niece to a detached row of garages on Atlas Street behind their North Fifth Street home to show her a car.
After looking at the vehicle, Burns said he noticed a sledge hammer standing amidst junk in an open garage at the end of row.
When he picked it up, he saw blood and hair on it.
Burns, who knew the Mitchells were looking for their son, sent Crawford’s brothers, Victor and Darnell, to the Mitchell home to tell them he found something significant.
Burns testified that Darnell claimed the hammer belonged to his family. He also said he had previously seen it under the Crawford’s porch.
Burns called police, who began a search of all the garages.
When they got to the Crawford family’s boarded up garage, someone, who one witness identified as Crawford, said there was no need to check it because there were only old cars in it.
After entering through a side door covered with a piece of plywood, Harrisburg Police Officer Eldon Beachley found Mitchell’s body.
He was under a green 1952 Chevrolet with only his feet sticking out.
One sneaker was off.
A white 1957 Pontiac station wagon parked tightly next to it was splattered and smeared with his blood.
It is unclear whether Mitchell crawled under the car in a desperate attempt to escape the attack or was stuffed under it.
A large crowd had gathered around the garage while police removed the car from over Mitchell and processed the crime scene. Although police said it was cordoned off, several members of the crowd entered the garage to help steady the car as it was lifted in the air.
Police took numerous photographs of the scene and dusted fingerprints from the cars, but did not photograph where the prints were lifted.
An autopsy showed Mitchell had been struck on the back of the head at least three times with a blunt object that perforated his skull. He had a cut and a less severe fracture on his forehead and two of his front teeth were knocked out. He also had been stabbed twice in the chest, with one of the wounds leaving a 5-inch track to his backbone.
The estimated time of death was 1 p.m.
Although some of his paper route supplies and change were scattered on the garage floor, the $32 he had collected that day was missing.
Police canvassed the neighborhood and took statements from anybody who may have had contact with Mitchell.
At the request of police, Crawford’s father, Samuel Banks, took him and his brothers to the police station where they voluntarily gave statements and were fingerprinted.
Banks signed a statement saying the hammer was his, but at trial said he couldn’t remember whether it was. Although he admitted it was his signature on the statement, he said he couldn’t read.
Other neighbors were also questioned and fingerprinted.
Lewis said he went to the police station to tell them about Crawford’s whereabouts, but was told he didn’t need to, because the boys were “clean.” Police later denied this.
Two days after the slaying, police asked Crawford’s mother for the clothes he was wearing on the day of the murder. Mary Crawford said she had put the clothes in a bag after her sons were questioned.
Police, believing the murderer would have been splattered with blood, examined the clothes at her house, but did not take them.
Two State Police fingerprint analysts had the prints from the car and neighbors, but couldn’t make an identification for 19 months. They spent more than 100 hours analyzing them, they later testified.
In April 1972, the troopers turned the prints over to Harrisburg Detective Walton D. Simpson, who identified three partial palm prints as Crawford’s five months later. Walton took the prints to State Police Cpl. John C. Balshy, who confirmed the identification.
The problem at that point became dating the prints, because Crawford could have left them there anytime.
Balshy and Simpson took the prints to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington, D.C. to see if they could date them.
There was no way to date them, but Balshy said as they were being analyzed under a microscope, he noticed tiny reddish flecks in the print powder, which he suspected might be blood.
On Nov. 29, 1972, the investigators took the prints to State Police chemist Janice Roadcap, who performed a test for blood on a section of the print.
Roadcap, Simpson and Balshy testified that they observed the chemical reaction give a positive indication for blood on the ridges of the print.
This later became the whole theory of the case - that since the blood was only on the ridges, it had to be on the hand when it touched the car, rather than blood splashed across an existing print or a print left on top of blood.
A copy of Roadcap’s notes of that test were discovered last October in a briefcase belonging to Simpson, who died in 1994, by two youths in Lower Allen Twp.
They have become the center of Crawford’s latest appeal because they say “numerous particles in the valleys also gave a (positive) reaction.”
That part of the report was blacked out in the original that was recently pulled from State Police archives. An analysis of two years of Roadcap’s reports found that she hadn’t altered any other report similarly.
The test Roadcap performed was not a definitive test for the presence of blood - it only told the substance could be blood. Further testing was needed to confirm it was blood.
On March 22, 1973, Balshy and Simpson took the prints to Barbara Frison, a blood expert for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had written an article on blood and fingerprints.
Frison, who used a confirmatory test, said she detected blood “of indeterminate origin” on another of Crawford’s three prints.
However, she said she didn’t find any on the print Roadcap said indicated the presence of blood. At Crawford’s 1974 trial, she said that would not exclude the presence of blood on other parts of the prints.
With nothing more than the presence of the hand prints, the possibility of blood on them, a sighting of Crawford near the crime scene and testimony that the hammer belonged to his family, police arrested Crawford on Feb. 14, 1974.
He was about to be released from a juvenile facility for the burglary of a Cumberland County sporting goods store.
By the time Crawford came to trial in September 1974, authorities had bolstered their case with scientific evidence and new testimony that was never recorded in police reports.
Days before the trial, Roadcap had performed more tests which she said confirmed the particles in the palm prints were human blood.
Mitchell’s older sister, Kathy, 14 at the time of the murder, testified she last saw her brother when he came home to count his money and left to pay his supervisor. She had testified similarly at Crawford’s preliminary hearing.
She said she first saw Crawford when he and four other youths came to their house that evening.
Vanessa Mitchell, who was nine at the time of the murder, took the stand next. She had been sequestered from hearing Cathy’s testimony.
She testified that Crawford had come to the home around noon while Mitchell was counting his money. She said he left with Crawford, placing Crawford as the last person seen with Mitchell.
Under cross examination, when asked if anyone else had seen Crawford at the home, she said Cathy had answered the door for him.
Neither girl had mentioned Crawford coming to the home during the day in signed police statements taken the day the body was found.
When confronted with her statement, Vanessa said she was not specifically asked about Crawford being there during the day.
Reached last week, Vanessa Mitchell said she didn’t recall Crawford coming to the house that day. She said she saw her brother walking down the street with Crawford that afternoon.
Cathy Mitchell declined comment for this story.
At the end of the case, prosecutor James Morgan Jr. tried to put Det. Ernest Macon on the stand to say he took a statement from Vanessa where she told him about seeing Crawford that day.
Judge Richard B. Wickersham would not allow it, saying Morgan’s witnesses were contradicting each other.
When the case was retried in 1977, both sisters were on the same page, saying Crawford had come to the house twice that day. Cathy said she answered the door for Crawford and told him to wait outside and Vanessa said she alone saw them leave together.
After trying to confront Cathy Mitchell with her previous testimony, Costopoulos asked for any police reports regarding who the victim was last seen with. Deputy District Attorney Peter J. Anderson said there were none.
However, in both the 1977 and 1978, prosecutors bolstered the sisters’ testimony with Harrisburg Police Officer Thomas Kohr, who said he and Macon had taken statements from the girls two days after the murder where they both said they had seen Crawford at the home during the day.
Kohr testified he wrote a report on the statements, but claimed the report, which was supposed to have been duplicated and placed in several files, was lost after he submitted it.
Mitchell’s father also reported seeing Crawford with his father playing pinball in a local bar at 1:30 a.m. the day after the murder. This was disputed at trial - Banks said he was out of town at the time and Crawford denied being there.
It is unclear whether the senior Mitchell mentioned Crawford in his initial statement to police.
At the first two trials, a State Police criminalist testified that hairs found in Mitchell’s hand had the characteristics of Negroid hair. Joseph Gorski, said they could not be matched to Crawford because of the time that had passed.
Gorski did not mention the hairs in Crawford’s last trial in 1978, but they became an issue in 1995, during a review of evidence.
Fran Socha, Crawford’s attorney at the time, said he and an investigator found the hairs, which were obviously blonde.
A subsequent analysis by state police concluded that the hairs were “consistent with animal hair.” Crawford is black and two other men who have admitted involvement in the crime are white.
In both 1974 and 1977 trials, Crawford testified that he had entered the garage to help while the car was removed from over the body. He said he bent down to look at Mitchell after the car was removed, but could not recall whether he touched the car.
With that line of defense, Crawford’s trial attorney, William C. Costopoulos, stipulated that the prints were Crawford’s, but challenged whether the substance on them was blood and if so, whether it had any meaning.
In 1974, both Balshy and Roadcap testified that because the blood was on the ridges, it was on the hand when it touched the car.
Simpson went a step further and said, despite the fact there was no scientific way to tell, he knew how fresh a print was and said it was placed there at the time of the murder.
The state Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction based on Simpson’s testimony.
When the case was retried in 1977, Costopoulos had a new witness and said he would reveal the “true murderer” of John Eddie Mitchell.
Frederick Kaeppel, a man with a long criminal history who previously lived in the neighborhood, testified he saw Leroy Burns with blood splattered over his shirt on the day of the murder.
Kaeppel also said he knew the hammer was Burns’ because he had previously borrowed it from him. He also said he saw him stashing it in the garage. He said Burns later admitted killing a black youth.
Burns said he had blood on his shirt that day because he had been cleaning fish. He denied any knowledge of the hammer or making the statements Kaeppel attributed to him.
As Costopoulos was zeroing in on Burns, Anderson admitted on the trial’s last day that a woman told prosecutors that her boyfriend had repeatedly said he killed Mitchell.
Marion Damroth said she had a stormy relationship with Richard Lee Zeiders, an admitted alcoholic, after he moved to her Camp Hill neighborhood in 1971.
Zeiders lived across the street from Mitchell at the time of the slaying and had started a drunken argument with Roy Lewis, Crawford’s alibi witness, on the afternoon of the murder.
He was complaining about children in the neighborhood making noise and blocking his parking spot.
After she broke up with Zeiders, Damroth said he threatened to kill her like he had done to the “paper boy,’ and had smashed the windshield of her car.
She said she had placed a written statement in a safe deposit box and told her attorneys after she got a restraining order against Zeiders.
She also told a deputy district attorney about Zeiders’ statements in 1975, but no one ever followed up. At her insistence, her attorney called the prosecutor’s office in the last days of Crawford’s 1977 trial.
At an evidentiary hearing, she said Zeiders referred to the murder at least six times during their two-year relationship while he was drinking. He told her it was the reason he drank so much.
She believed him.
“He mentioned the newsboy, he mentioned the garage several times during his statements, he mentioned the black boy in Harrisburg, but I don’t believe he used the reference as the black boy, but it was the black boy in Harrisburg,” Damroth testified.
Zeiders, intially lied to police, but later admitted making the statements. He said he only did so to be a “tough guy” and because he wanted to break off the relationship with Damroth.
He said he spent the day of the murder drinking vodka and beer in a local bar. He also admitted getting into an argument with Lewis.
Anderson, who did not know about Damroth during the trial, said his office had dismissed her statements because Zeiders had passed a lie detector test.
Judge John C. Dowling granted Crawford a new trial based on the fact that the prosecutor’s office failed to mention the statement to the defense.
But when Costopoulos got Zeiders in front of a jury in 1978, Dowling would not allow Damroth to take the stand to say that she was the one who had ended the relationship.
Damroth also would have testified Zeiders hated black people and that she feared for her life.
Dowling said he would not allow it since Zeiders had admitted making the statements and because Costopoulos had already introduced letters Zeiders had written trying to get her back.
He also wouldn’t allow Roy Lewis to testify that Zeiders had started the argument that day because the go-cart was blocking his parking space.
Crawford, who didn’t testify, was convicted once again, primarily on the weight of the finger print evidence.
The case languished in appeals for years, until Kaeppel resurfaced in 1995 with a new story.
Kaeppel was 26 when he moved with his wife and two children to Colorado two weeks after the murder. By that point, he had convictions for theftforgery, burglary and statutory rape.
Crawford’s parents say that Kaeppel, started visiting them on an almost monthly basis several years later. He started giving them money to put in Crawford’s commissary accounts. He began visiting Crawford in prison.
He said he knew their son was innocent.
In 1995, while Crawford‘s post-conviction petition was pending before the court with little to support it, Kaeppel told Crawford’s family he and another man were involved in the murder.
He told them that he and John Wayne Fickes had followed Mitchell down the alley and Fickes took him into the garage.
He said Fickes came out and said “he had to tap him.” Kaeppel said he disposed of the hammer.
Kaeppel’s story changed as he told it to defense investigators, Dauphin County detectives, two polygraph operators and The Patriot-News, each time further involving himself.
In the last version, Kaeppel said he lured Mitchell into the garage where Fickes was waiting by telling Mitchell that Crawford was waiting for him there.
Kaeppel and Fickes lived in the neighborhood at the time and had been convicted of assorted robberies and burglaries. They were together when Kaeppewas charged with raping a 15-year-old girl in 1966.
Kaeppel passed two polygraph examinations when he said Crawford wasn’t at the crime scene, but showed deception when he denied hitting Mitchell with the hammer and lying about other aspects of the case.
Fickes, who denied any knowledge of the slaying, signaled deception during a polygraph when he denied being present at the crime with Kaeppel, but he passed when he said he wasn’t the one who hit Mitchell with the hammer, according to court testimony.
At a 1997 evidentiary hearing, Kleinfelter, over defense objections, read Kaeppel his rights and told him he was being accused of a crime.
Kaeppel refused to testify.
Kleinfelter would not allow Socha to introduce statements Kaeppel made to others under an exception to the hearsay rule concerning criminal admissions. The judge ruled Kaeppel didn’t believe he was confessing to a crime.
Kleinfelter, however, ordered that Kaeppel and Fickes be fingerprinted and that their prints be compared to 18 unidentified prints found in the garage.
An analysis of those prints was inconclusive.
A DNA test ordered on the substance on Crawford’s hand prints also came back inconclusive.
Now Crawford’s prints are lost.
The DNA laboratory that conducted the tests say they sent the prints back to the District Attorney’s Office, which cannot find them.
Herbert MacDonnel, the expert who testified that if the particles were only on the ridges, the blood was on the hand, has now given contradictory statements to the prosecution and the defense.
He says he could possibly make a conclusive statement if he had access to the prints.
His view now that the particles were too small to be splattered blood is based entirely on what Roadcap is saying now.
He initially said Roadcap’s notes about the particles in the valleys invalidated the prosecution theory.
Kleinfelter’s inquiry Thursday will only focus on Roadcap’s notes and their implications. Under the law, the other questions in the case have already been resolved.
But the tortured history of the case will undoubtedly be in the back of
Pete Shellem may be reached at 717-255-8156 or at email@example.com.