Who killed Edna Laughman?
Of The Patriot-News
The evidence has been all but forgotten: DNA that might hold the key to solving the rape and killing of an 85-year-old Adams County woman. For the past 15 years, Barry Laughman has sat in prison serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of the neighbor he called Aunt Edna. It's a crime he says he didn't commit.
Now, DNA samples might finally resolve this question:
Is Barry Laughman a brutal killer, or an innocent man who fell through the cracks of the justice system?
Police say there is no question about Laughman's guilt. To them, the case was a slam dunk. Laughman confessed to the 1987 slaying. Three bruises that police say were grip marks on Edna Laughman's arm matched Barry's inability to use his pinkie.
But the conviction has unsettled some attorneys and investigators. They say the mentally retarded defendant's confession doesn't seem to match the evidence.
Barry Laughman's blood type differs from that of whoever left the semen that was found on Edna's body.
Witnesses say they saw Edna after she supposedly had been killed.
Another man was seen lurking near her home.
An Adams County detective reviewing the case for prosecutors has questioned these inconsistencies and others. The trial judge cautioned the jury that evidence that might have exonerated Barry Laughman had been destroyed by the state.
After 15 years, Barry's new attorney will finally ask to have the DNA material tested. Thanks to scientific advances, semen samples from the murder scene can now be compared directly with Laughman's DNA.
"I'm very new to the case," said David Foster, who took up Barry's defense two weeks ago. "But from everyone I've discussed this with, there's a general consensus that he's an innocent man."
EDNA AND BARRY
In the summer of 1987, Edna Laughman spent her days on the porch of a ramshackle house in Oxford Twp., watching the world go by on Route 94.
Her family said the widow of 25 years liked living alone. She would move in with her niece during the winter because her wood- frame house had no heat other than a small wood-burning stove.
Edna's house also had no running water and only one light bulb, in the kitchen.
She used a chamber pot because her outhouse was useless. The house was so cluttered that it only could be navigated by using 18- inch pathways among boxes and other junk.
During the summers, she would eat dinner almost every night at the home, two doors away, where Barry Laughman lived with his parents, two brothers and a niece. Barry and his family were distant relatives of Edna Laughman.
Just as Edna watched the world go by, the world was passing Barry by.
With an IQ of about 70, Barry was functioning at the level of a 10-year-old, experts said. He dropped out of special education classes in 11th grade.
He was scared of the dark.
Having flunked the entrance test for the National Guard, Barry got a job stacking skids at a local chemical company.
At 24, Barry rode his bike to work because he was unable to pass the driver's license exam.
His boss at Miller Chemical, Mark Kuhn, said Barry was a good employee but felt pressure so intensely that he was barely able to complete a job application.
After Edna Laughman's murder, Kuhn told state Trooper Donald G. Blevins that Barry "is extremely nervous, and if he were to be questioned by police about this case, we would think he did it just because he would be nervous -- that this is just his nature," according to Blevins' notes.
On the afternoon of Aug. 13, 1987, Barry's mother, Madeline Laughman, became concerned when Edna didn't show up to watch her usual soap operas.
When Edna didn't arrive for dinner, she got even more worried.
Madeline and her sons, Barry and David, went to Edna's home. Another brother, Larry, and his wife had just arrived.
When they got no response, they decided to break in.
Barry tried to help by kicking the door, but he fell over. He got a pry bar, but was still unable to open it. Finally his mother did.
She and Larry's wife, Ruann, went inside the dark home and saw Edna, naked except for a bra pulled up above her breasts and a dress covering her face.
Her upper body was on the bed and her feet were on the floor. Three safety pins were on her bra, and one was open.
Edna had pills stuffed in her mouth and a pill bottle was in her right hand. Her belongings had been ransacked.
A Marlboro cigarette had been extinguished on a chair next to the bed, and four more butts plus a Marlboro box lid were found throughout the home.
An autopsy would show she had been beaten and tried to defend herself. She was hit on the back of her head and bruises covered her arms, legs and nose.
Lacerations showed she had been raped and semen remained on the body. The pathologist determined that sex had been performed during or after her death.
Tests to determine the time of death were inconclusive.
Trooper Blevins determined that Edna had gone to a church service the night before with a neighbor, Enos Shank, and his family.
He had dropped her off at home around 9:45 p.m., waiting while she unlocked her door and went inside. She had talked about eating some homemade bread before going to sleep.
Shank, a farmer, was running a tractor in a field behind Edna's home the next morning. He said he did not see Edna or anything suspicious as he passed the house every 15 to 30 minutes between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.
But another neighbor, Royce Emerson, who knew Barry most of his life, told police he saw a stranger walking behind his home around 7 or 7:30 a.m. When Emerson confronted the man, he pointed toward fields behind the homes and said he was coming from there.
The man, who had reddish brown hair and a mustache, was wearing a blue work suit and pulled a cigarette from a red-and-white fliptop box -- it looked to Emerson like a pack of Marlboros.
After lighting a cigarette, he walked off in the direction of Edna's home, Emerson said.
State police drew a sketch of the man based on Emerson's description, began stopping cars on Route 94 and asked whether anyone had seen him.
A soil sample taken from where Emerson last saw the man matched soil taken from a footprint in the house.
They never identified the man.
They gave up looking for him after Barry's arrest.
THE LEAD INVESTIGATOR
With little progress in the investigation, state police assigned Trooper Jack Holtz to the case.
Holtz had been instrumental in the conviction of Jay C. Smith, a suburban Philadelphia high school principal sentenced to death for the murders of English teacher Susan Reinert and her two children.
Holtz was a star in the state police as well as in a book about the Smith case, "Echoes in the Darkness" by Joseph Wambaugh.
It wasn't until six years later that Holtz retired under fire. It was learned he had accepted $50,000 from Wambaugh for information about the Smith case, on the condition that Smith be arrested. The agreement was found among trash removed from Holtz's home by a junkman along with notes from the case contradicting trial testimony.
An investigation cleared Holtz of any wrongdoing. His retirement ended an internal investigation by state police. Smith eventually was released from prison by the state Supreme Court, which found that police and prosecutors acted so improperly that to try Smith a second time would amount to double jeopardy. The court's opinion was unrelated to the evidence found in Holtz's home, centering instead on the prosecution hiding other evidence from the defense.
But at the time he was assigned to the Laughman case, Holtz's character was a leading role in an upcoming TV miniseries based on Wambaugh's book.
Although he didn't mention it in reports or hearings until Barry's trial more than a year later, Holtz said he cracked the Edna Laughman case on Aug. 18, the first day he was there.
Holtz testified that while he was interviewing relatives at the crime scene, he handed Barry a can of snuff and noticed that Barry's pinkie did not bend properly. Barry had injured his little finger as a child.
Holtz said he connected this to three bruises he saw on Edna's arm that he assumed were grip marks. Because there were only three, Holtz inferred that the marks were left by someone who had a problem using one of his fingers.
Holtz, who lives in Alabama, could not be reached for comment for this story. Messages left at a phone number listed for him were not returned.
Two weeks after the murder, a couple came in to talk to Blevins about seeing Edna on the morning of Aug. 13.
Elwood Bollinger and his girlfriend, Patricia Harrison, were on their way to a doctor's appointment that morning when they saw Edna in her back yard.
Although they didn't know Edna, they had seen her in the past. Harrison told police that she remarked, "There's that poor old soul," as they passed her on Aug. 13.
The couple said that Blevins told them they must have had the wrong date. Bollinger and Harrison returned after Barry's arrest, insisting they were right. But they said police told them that they "must believe in ghosts," because she was dead the night before. By then, police had concluded that Barry killed Edna Laughman on the night of Aug. 12.
At trial, Barry's attorney, Jeffrey Cook, presented evidence that Harrison's medical appointment was on Aug. 13.
Blevins and Holtz questioned Barry again on Aug. 27, 1987, at the Gettysburg state police barracks. Under questioning, Barry said he was drinking beer with his brother the evening before Edna was found. He said he could not go to bed because another brother was in the room they shared with his girlfriend.
According to court records, Barry said he fell asleep on the couch and didn't get up until the next morning when his father woke him to go to work. His entire family would later testify that Barry went up to his room after his brother's girlfriend left at 11 p.m.
Barry initially told Holtz he didn't own "tennis shoes," but he later admitted he had black high-top sneakers. Although he explained that he didn't consider sneakers tennis shoes, police considered this statement an attempt to deceive them.
Barry's sneakers did not match a footprint found in the home.
The troopers kept two butts from cigarettes that Barry smoked during the interview for testing.
Holtz and Blevins asked Barry and his father to come back to the station on Sept. 8.
Barry's father, Oscar, declined an offer by state troopers for them to pick up Barry at work. He said Barry would have a "nervous breakdown" in a patrol car.
Oscar took Barry to the Gettysburg barracks after work. He said Barry had shared some beers with a co-worker on his way home.
When they got to the barracks, Holtz took Barry into an interview room alone.
Holtz told the young man that his family said he was not out in the yard drinking with his brother, David. He told him David said he was taking medication and could not drink alcohol. At the trial, Barry's family would dispute that they gave this account to police.
During the interview with Holtz, Barry changed his story to say he was drinking with his other brother, Tim.
Then Holtz told him that the killer smoked Marlboros. He said they had found Marlboro box tops in Barry's yard, and Barry admitted he would frequently tear them off.
"Barry was told that a fingerprint was found on the fliptop box found in Edna's house, that the fingerprint had a whorl pattern," Holtz testified. "Barry was then told to look at his right index finger because it also contained a whorl pattern."
What Holtz didn't mention is that all fingerprints have a whorl pattern.
Holtz said Barry became nervous and kept eyeing the box top Holtz had lying on the table in a plastic bag. Holtz picked it up and asked Barry whether he would tell him the truth about what happened that night.
After about an hour of questioning, Holtz signaled Blevins to come in, telling him Barry had something to say.
According to the troopers, Barry said he would tell them what really happened if they didn't tell his parents.
Blevins took notes while Holtz did the questioning. Eventually Barry confessed, saying he had gone to get a soda at a nearby car lot and had climbed in Edna's bedroom window. He said he hit her with a flashlight he was carrying.
He said he stuffed pills in her throat and pinched her nose shut while stroking her throat to get her to choke on the pills.
He also said he raped her and stole $400 from a bag she kept pinned to her bra to make it look like a robbery rather than a rape. He said he disposed of the bag the next day in a Dumpster at a furniture store. He said he spent the money on beer and food.
He said he did it because he could "never ever" get a girl.
Holtz said Barry admitted things known only to the killer, but Holtz's notes suggest he might have introduced some of the information.
He asked whether Barry put pills in her mouth.
He asked whether he grabbed her by the wrists.
He asked whether he smoked cigarettes in the house.
He asked whether he smoked more than one.
Holtz had a tape recorder, but there is no tape of Barry confessing. On the tape, Holtz reads the statement to Barry and asks him whether it's accurate.
Barry is only heard saying "yes."
After the confession, Blevins and Holtz got a search warrant for Barry's home and found a flashlight -- an inoperable plastic flashlight that was so light the troopers didn't think it contained batteries.
This was the weapon they said Barry used to knock out Edna, leaving a 2-inch bruise on the back of her head.
They also determined that a sneaker print found in Edna's home was from a different size and brand of sneaker than Barry's.
Barry had a girlfriend. She was never questioned by police or at trial about an intimate relationship, which she now confirms.
The woman, who is married and asked that her name not be used, said she and Barry had a sexual relationship and that Barry had asked her to marry him.
Holtz and Blevins repeatedly questioned Barry's family about the night before Edna was found and repeatedly got the same story -- Barry was drinking, watched TV and went to bed after his brother's girlfriend left. The family also said that they heard no commotion during the night, that their dogs would have barked if someone had gone out or returned.
Blood-type testing of the cigarette butts found at the scene and the ones Barry left in the interview room were inconclusive.
THE INNOCENCE PROJECT
Why would someone confess to a crime he didn't commit?
According to The Innocence Project of Northwestern University School of Law, more than 20 percent of convicts who have been exonerated by DNA evidence had falsely confessed to the crime.
Project researchers have also identified more than 100 cases where defendants or suspects falsely confessed, and report a startling number of cases involving mentally retarded or impaired suspects. Two of those defendants spent years in prison and came within weeks of being put to death before they were exonerated.
The Innocence Project is calling for all police interrogations to be videotaped to provide an objective record. That standard has been made law in Alaska, Minnesota and the United Kingdom.
Sociologist Richard Ofshe at the University of California Berkeley, an expert in false confessions, called Holtz's recording of yes or no questions "useless and dangerous."
"Someone who wants to get to the truth can't tell whether the suspect knew crucial information or whether the police contaminated the person by providing him crucial information," Ofshe said. "We now have a long, long list of innocent people who were made to seem to knowledgeably confess to crimes -- and we know that the only way these individuals could have gotten much of the detailed information that they include in the confession is from the police."
Foster said part of his decision to take the case was based on the dangers of false confessions.
In 1990, Foster represented William M. Kelly Jr., a 28-year-old borderline retarded man who confessed to the murder of a Hall Manor woman at a Swatara Twp. landfill.
Kelly repeatedly confessed to the crime and reportedly led investigators to the scene of the murder, describing how he bludgeoned Jeanette Thomas to death with a tree branch.
It wasn't until two years later that investigators noted the similarities between Thomas' slaying and those committed by Steelton serial killer Joseph D. Miller.
The DNA from the Thomas crime scene matched that of Miller, who ultimately confessed to her murder. Kelly was freed.
"I know firsthand how, in a police custodial interrogation, a retarded man can be led into making a false confession, which may very well be what happened here," Foster said.
Adams County Detective Frank Donnelly, who is reviewing the case for the prosecution, said throughout his career with the state police, where he served as a cold case investigator, he was always cautious about possible false confessions and would do everything he could to confirm them.
"I consider this statement to be largely uncorroborated and in need of corroboration," he said. "That's as I sit here now having read everything and looked at everything, I still feel that way."
Donnelly drew an analogy to auto repair.
"If you're fixing a car, if you have it right, the part should slide into place," Donnelly said. "A lot of time if you're jamming the parts in, you either have the wrong parts or you're putting them in wrong. Do we have the wrong parts in this case because we have the wrong guy?"
THE BLOOD EVIDENCE
Once Barry confessed and was arrested, the troopers set about verifying his confession.
They obtained a warrant based on a statement by state police chemist Janice Roadcap saying that the sperm found on Edna "was from a person of type 'A' blood."
Some people -- including Barry and Edna -- secrete their blood type into other bodily fluids such as semen, sweat and saliva, according to experts.
Roadcap had swabs taken from Edna's body and microscope slides taken of the sperm.
After Barry's blood was drawn he came back as a type B who secretes his blood type in his semen.
Roadcap, who did not return a phone call for this story, came up with various hypotheses to explain the contradiction.
Roadcap is at the center of a lawsuit filed by Steven Crawford, a Harrisburg man who was freed after spending 28 years in prison based primarily on Roadcap's testimony.
In Crawford's case, a copy of Roadcap's original lab notes -- which contradicted her testimony and that of other investigators -- surfaced in a discarded briefcase.
In Barry's case, Roadcap acknowledged at trial she probably amended her notes after Barry's blood was pegged as type B, writing in the margins of the report that swabs taken of the semen "were moist when placed in vials. Breakdown of B antigens could have occurred."
She offered various theories as to why the tests did not point to a different murderer.
She suggested that bacteria could have attacked the B antigens.
She said Edna had type A blood, and that her vaginal secretions could have overridden Barry's blood type.
She said that antibiotics Edna was taking for a urinary tract infection could have changed the blood type.
The prosecution presented Dr. Robert Wenk, the blood bank director and head of the division of clinical pathology at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, to support Roadcap's testimony about how the samples could have been tainted.
But two experts consulted by The Patriot-News who reviewed Roadcap's testimony raised serious doubts about her theories.
They also questioned why she did not perform any further tests to confirm those theories. Instead, Roadcap gave the evidence back to troopers, who stored it in an evidence locker for eight months where it degraded, rendering it useless for further testing, according to Barry's attorney.
Dr. Richard Saferstein, former head of the New Jersey State Police crime lab and the author of textbooks on forensic serology, said there is no basis in science or fact for Roadcap's conclusions.
He said that bacteria selectively destroying only B antigens might be theoretically possible, but is extremely unlikely to occur in all three samples -- in separate test tubes -- where Roadcap detected semen.
"She keeps saying it's possible. Well, anything's possible," Saferstein said. "We have to talk in terms of reasonable probability. These are outrageous statements."
He and Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht also said there is no scientific evidence that antibiotics can change someone's blood type.
"She says maybe his B was simply weak. I think what's weak here is her whole argument," said Wecht, who is nationally known for his work on such cases as the John F. Kennedy assassination, Elvis Presley's death and more recently, the slaying of Washington intern Chandra Levy.
Wecht said the samples could easily have been tested for bacteria or other contamination, tests that Roadcap did not perform.
"It was her scientific duty to see to it that every one of those swabs were tested to confirm her findings," Wecht said. "Instead of having this be exculpatory, they come up with these totally scientifically unfounded reasons.
"That's just a disgrace that they proceeded with this without further testing," Wecht said. "The first tragedy is that this happened to an 85-year-old woman. The second tragedy here is what happened to this case."
Adams County Judge Oscar Spicer denied motions to suppress Barry Laughman's confession. The case came to trial in December 1988.
Prosecutor Roy Keefer relied on the confession and inconsistencies in Barry and his family's statements, while Public Defender Jeff Cook, Barry's attorney, hammered away at the scientific evidence and the contradictions between the confession and the physical evidence.
Observers said the case appeared to be a toss-up until Holtz dropped his three- finger bruise bombshell.
Cook said in a recent interview that Holtz's theory "blindsided" him. He said the pathologist had testified the marks could have been knuckles from a punch or grip marks, but Holtz had never tried to link them to Barry's injured pinkie before taking the stand.
"It was like voodoo," Cook said.
In what would become literally the clincher of the case, Cook put Barry on the stand and had him demonstrate his grip on a piece of clay. It turned out that only three fingers left marks in the clay, while his pinkie did not.
Cook said he had not tried out the clay demonstration before Barry testified, that the clay chunk was actually too small for Barry to get his full hand around.
"In hindsight, I shouldn't have put him on the stand," Cook said.
But Keefer called the demonstration a smoking gun.
"If you had seen him when he sat there on the witness stand and squeezed so hard that his arm was shaking. When we walked up and saw what he had done, there were three marks and not four -- exactly the same type of pattern on the victim. It was pretty clear," Keefer said in a May interview.
Keefer said he has never had doubts about the case. He said that Barry's confession was overwhelming evidence of his guilt.
"[The police] didn't put words in his mouth," Keefer said. "They put him in a frame of mind where he felt free to confess to them, but that's called good police work."
During his testimony, Barry was asked to read the Miranda warnings and statement he had signed.
He couldn't make out nearly every other word.
He said Holtz kept telling him he didn't believe him. He said Holtz had brought up the pills and the cigarettes, that someone had hit Edna on the head and had sex with her.
"He said that 'why don't you just tell us? We know you did it,"' Barry testified.
Barry said he confessed so the troopers would stop questioning him.
"What did you think was going to happen if you agreed with them?" Cook asked.
"That they would let me alone," Barry answered.
Jurors interviewed shortly after Barry's conviction, and again for this story, said they had been leaning toward acquitting him until Barry took the stand.
One juror who asked that his name not be used told The Patriot- News that Barry seemed more competent than he was portrayed by defense psychologists.
"The defense portrayed this young man as very excitable and nervous," the juror said. "But when he took the stand he was calm, cool and collected. He was portrayed one way and came off as another."
The same juror said they would have had to acquit if they relied on the police investigation.
"The police bungled this thing so badly," he said. "If we had to depend on that, we would have had to let him go."
Skip Gochenour, a private detective who worked for Laughman's defense, said that when he first met Barry he thought the young man was normal; but upon questioning, Barry seemed unable to grasp what was going on. He couldn't even make out or understand the meaning of the word "bra" when Gochenour tried to have him read his own confession.
"Do I question whether Barry said some of the things that are in that statement?" Gochenour said. "No, I don't. But I think he was just responding. I could have gotten him to confess to being Jack the Ripper."
Judge Spicer, who did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, also referred to Barry's apparent normalcy in an opinion upholding his conviction.
"We observed the defendant on the stand during the hearing and during trial," Spicer wrote. "He is a miserable reader, but otherwise gives the appearance of competence."
Spicer's opinion concedes there was some "troublesome plasticity" in the prosecution's case, but he said the defense could not overcome two things: "his grip and his confession."
Spicer was upheld by the state Superior Court in 1991. The state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in 1992.
Despite his opinion upholding the conviction, Spicer -- without being asked by the defense -- said the fact that the state had let the evidence deteriorate should be a mitigating factor when the jury considered the death penalty.
And Spicer took the highly unusual move two years ago of leaving a post- conviction appeal open indefinitely, in case any new evidence was found.
At the time of the trial, DNA testing was in its infancy. Substantial amounts of material were needed for accurate results. Cook tried unsuccessfully to have the materials tested before trial.
After trial, Spicer ordered the evidence -- 18 swabs and six microscope slides -- turned over to Cook. There was still insufficient material to test.
The evidence sat in a refrigerator in Cook's office for five more years until another attorney was appointed to represent Barry Laughman.
An apparent communications mix-up then ensued.
Mark Beauchat, now a district justice, said he sent a sealed box containing the evidence to Penn State anthropology professor Mark Stoneking in 1994.
Beauchat said he received a call from Stoneking saying he could not perform conclusive tests. Beauchat said he never received a report and did not get the materials back.
But Stoneking said he was able to get a DNA sample from the semen swabs taken at the crime scene, but that he needed to test comparison samples from Barry and Edna to draw any meaningful conclusions.
Stoneking said he made the request to Beauchat for samples from Barry and Edna but never received a reply. He said he kept the vials containing the crime- scene DNA when he moved to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in 1998.
"I had no idea what the case was about," he said. "There are all sorts of reasons why they don't follow up."
Foster, Barry Laughman's new lawyer, plans to go to court to seek an order for the DNA sample to be tested, along with fresh DNA that would be obtained from Laughman.
For his part, Gochenour, a former police officer and veteran of more than 500 murder cases as a defense investigator, said Laughman's case is one of three where he believes his client was actually innocent.
One of the others was the Crawford case.
Even Donnelly, who has put hundreds of people behind bars, said he can't find a hook in the case to convince him of Barry's guilt.
"I believe the legal system has built-in trip wires or circuit breakers to prevent innocent people from being prosecuted and convicted," Donnelly said. "In this case, if he is innocent, none of those circuit breakers went off.
"If he didn't do this, Barry has to be the unluckiest guy in the world."
PETE SHELLEM: 717-255-8156 or firstname.lastname@example.org