New DNA test reopens case of convicted Mich. serial killer
A new DNA test that pointed to a different killer in a 1981 murder case has led to a retrial for Michael Darnell Harris, who is serving a life sentence
By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan State Police has launched an investigation into how its crime lab handled several murder cases after new DNA testing pointed to a different killer in a 1981 sex slaying for which a Michigan man is serving a life sentence.
Ingham County Circuit Court has set a Sept. 23 hearing to consider new evidence that could overturn the conviction of Michael Darnell Harris, 53, in the murder of Ula Curdy, 77, of Lansing.
But interim Ingham Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer and Lansing defense attorney Edwar Zeineh disagree about how significant an overturned conviction in the Curdy killing would be.
Harris, 53, is a convicted serial killer, serving life sentences not just for killing Curdy, but for murdering three other women in 1981 and 1982 in Lansing, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. He has long claimed he is innocent of all four crimes.
Whitmer said freedom for Harris anytime soon appears highly unlikely, given his extensive record.
"If there was only one conviction for which he was serving time ... his situation would change dramatically," she told the Free Press.
But Zeineh, the court-appointed attorney for Harris, told the Free Press that if the Curdy conviction falls -- as he is sure it will -- other Harris convictions from what was seen as the work of a serial killer and rapist will follow in a "domino effect."
He noted the Curdy murder was the first killing Harris was convicted of committing, and said that prejudiced him at later trials. Also, records show a former MSP crime lab supervisor who testified against Harris in both the Ingham and Washtenaw county cases was forced to retire in 2004 after officials learned he had a subordinate complete his DNA proficiency test and fraudulently submitted it as his own.
The MSP is now investigating how its crime lab handled all the Harris convictions, a spokeswoman said.
David Moran, a University of Michigan law professor who directs the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said the prejudicial impact of a wrongful murder conviction — particularly one involving a sex crime — is potentially far-reaching. Moran couldn't cite an example of a convicted serial killer who was exonerated after one murder conviction fell apart, but he said there's been several examples of DNA evidence clearing convicted serial rapists.
"You do get a domino effect with a wrongful conviction, particularly if you have a serial ... rapist," Moran said.
Harris was convicted of the 1981 Lansing killings of Curdy and 81-year-old Denise Swanson in Ingham County in 1983, when he was 20. The other two other murders, of 85-year-old Marjorie Upson of Ypsilanti and 84-year-old Louise Koebnick of Ann Arbor, were committed in 1982.
But Harris' convictions in those cases came much later, in 1993, when he already was serving time for the Lansing killings.
Harris has always insisted police got the wrong man, and during his 33 years behind bars became an expert -- though until now woefully unsuccessful -- jailhouse lawyer, filing a raft of state and federal appeals without the help of an attorney.
"I am 100% innocent," Harris told the Free Press in an e-mail from Muskegon Correctional Facility. "I had nothing to do with these crimes. The prosecutions were not about truth. They were about hate, racism and revenge."
In 2015, Harris persuaded Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to order DNA testing -- which was not available in 1983 -- on semen found on Curdy's girdle. It recently came back as a match, not to Harris, but to another man who is already on the FBI's CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database of convicted offenders and arrestees, officials said.
Robert Merritt, a spokesman for the Lansing Police Department, said no arrest has been made, but police have interviewed "a cooperating non-Lansing resident," and are "currently reviewing and submitting further evidence from this case" to the crime lab.
Whitmer said her chief deputy told her about the new DNA evidence and "we immediately secured court-appointed legal counsel for the defendant" and turned over information about the case.
"When we're made aware of evidence like this, we treat it very seriously," Whitmer said. "We want the justice system to work and for people to be able to have confidence in it."
Since all the victims from Harris' convictions were elderly when slain about 35 years ago, most of the victims' children have also died.
Curdy's daughter Kathleen Bowser and son-in-law Rex Bowser, who helped police discover her mother's body after checking on her well-being, have both died since the murder.
Curdy's son, Melvin Curdy, also has died. Another son, Keith Curdy, who moved to California before the murder, could not be reached for comment. A grandson, Michael Curdy of Clarkston, who was a student at Central Michigan University at the time of his grandmother's murder, said family members told him her killer had died in prison. He said he didn't follow the murder trial closely and declined comment on the new DNA evidence and whether Harris was the killer.
But Lansing attorney Peter Houk, who prosecuted the Curdy case in Ingham County Circuit Court and later became the county's chief circuit judge before going into private practice, said he remembers the case well and believes the conviction was proper.
Evidence included a form of blood protein analysis called electroforesis, which was a precursor to DNA testing and showed that a significant portion of the population -- but not Harris -- was excluded as a match to Harris' blood type and other genetic markers in biological material found on Curdy's girdle, Houk said.
But from talking to jurors after the conviction, a palm print lifted from a dining room chair that matched Harris was the most compelling evidence, said Houk, who speculated Harris could have been at the scene with another offender.
The palm print evidence was controversial at the trial. Court-appointed defense attorney Bernard Finn sought unsuccessfully to have it excluded because police had returned the chair they lifted the print from to the family rather than preserving it as evidence for the trial.
Zeineh noted an all-white jury convicted Harris of Curdy's murder in 1983. One month later, after a trial without a jury, presided over by the same judge who handled the Curdy case, Harris was convicted of killing Swanson.
"These two cases, I believe, laid the foundational work for the investigations in Ann Arbor," Zeineh said.
Both Curdy and Swanson were killed during an alarming spate of killings of elderly Lansing women -- many involving strangulation, sexual assault and cuts to the throat. No one was ever charged in the 1981 killing of Edith Crossette, 81, or the 1980 killing of Edna Ryckaert, 77, both of Lansing.
Harris' mother, Betty Harris, 76, of Lansing, said she's always believed her son is no murderer and she's excited about the new development in the case.
"He's not angry, but he just wants out," his mother said.
Though DNA evidence was used to secure the 1993 convictions in Washtenaw County, Harris, who represented himself in the Washtenaw trials, has long argued evidence was mishandled and manipulated, and that evidence from the Washtenaw murders was cross-contaminated with his own DNA samples. His appeals attack personnel and practices in the Michigan State Police crime lab, as well as local police departments.
Two Ann Arbor police detectives were investigated in 2002 for their conduct in trying to obtain confessions from Harris in the Washtenaw County murders, following a complaint by Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie, according to a 2003 Ann Arbor News report, and court records. One of the detectives was disciplined with two weeks of unpaid leave, according to court testimony.
Records Zeineh obtained under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act show that former MSP forensic scientist manager Charles E. Bama resigned in 2004 under a settlement agreement after internal charges were brought against Bama for telling a subordinate to write his 2003 DNA proficiency test, when he "provided certification to the MSP and the FBI laboratory, CODIS unit," that he had completed the test himself.
Bama testified at Harris trials in Lansing and Ann Arbor, records show. He could not be reached for comment.
Steven Hiller, Washtenaw County chief assistant prosecuting attorney and a spokesman for Mackie, said Wednesday that the Michigan State Police recently asked for materials related to the Washtenaw cases. He had no comment on the recent development in the Curdy case.
Nicole Lisabeth, a spokeswoman for the MSP, said the American Society of Crime Lab Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board received a complaint from Harris in early July alleging wrongdoing by the MSP crime lab. The board forwarded the complaint to the MSP, which opened an internal investigation, she said.
"The internal investigation is open and active," Lisabeth said in an e-mail. "Additional comments will not be made until the conclusion of the investigation."
The Harris case is further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the four life sentences for murder, Harris is serving a 60- to 90-year sentence for a 1982 Jackson County sexual assault -- a 1983 conviction handed down prior to his conviction for Curdy's murder.
Harris said in an e-mail that although the Jackson conviction came before the Curdy conviction, the alleged Jackson crime was after Curdy's killing; and that Lansing police, who already were investigating him in connection with the Lansing killings, worked with Jackson police on the case. He has raised issues about a photo lineup used in the case, conflicting witness testimony about how the attacker was dressed, and an alibi witness who was not called to testify.
In the Curdy case, Finn told the Free Press he felt he scored a partial victory by convincing Judge Robert Holmes Bell -- who later became a federal judge in Grand Rapids -- to reduce the maximum charge to second-degree murder from first-degree murder. Finn said if Harris is entitled to a new trial he should get it, and that he wishes him the best, but the trial had not left him outraged or feeling that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.
At the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Moran said that one way someone wrongly convicted of murder is disadvantaged in subsequent trials is that they are unable to take the stand in their own defense unless they want to risk being questioned about their criminal record, which is highly prejudicial. Deciding not to take the witness stand also is prejudicial, since some jurors interpret that as a sign of guilt, he said.
Moran, who has not worked on Harris' case, criticized electroforesis evidence, saying a test that excludes 90% of the population would still include tens of thousands of people in the greater Lansing area.
He pointed to three cases in which DNA evidence has cleared people convicted of serial crimes, and said there are others.
In Virginia, Thomas Hayneswoth was convicted in four separate trials in a string of 1984 rapes, based largely on witness IDs. Haynesworth was released from prison in 2011 after DNA evidence helped clear him in the attacks.
In Massachusetts, Dennis Maher was released from prison in 2003, where he was serving time for a string of 1983 rapes that DNA showed he did not commit.
And in Illinois, Dana Holland was separately convicted of one rape and one robbery and attempted murder, which both occurred in 1983. After DNA evidence cleared him in the rape case, Holland was acquitted of the robbery and attempted murder charges at a new trial.