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Vermont investigates fingerprint lab work

By Dave Gram
Associated Press / October 8, 2011

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MONTPELIER - Two state agencies recently investigated possible misconduct in criminal cases by a fingerprint analyst in the Vermont Forensics Laboratory, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

The documents concern efforts by Rutland lawyer Matt Harnett, who is representing 24-year-old manslaughter defendant Nicholas Bell, to obtain materials related to the investigation of lab fingerprint analyst Ann P. Horsman.

The investigation was conducted by the state Department of Public Safety and the Department of Personnel.

A court motion filed by Harnett makes clear that he wants to challenge evidence gathered by the state against Bell and expresses his frustration that the state has failed to meet deadlines for showing the defense what fingerprint evidence it has.

Harnett’s motion also mentions a July 6 letter from a lawyer for the Department of Public Safety, Rosemary Gretkowski, to the office of Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage. “The letter suggests that Ann Horsman committed misconduct in [Bell’s case] and others,’’ Harnett wrote.

Bell is charged with shooting his friend, Jeffrey Charbonneau, 24, in the chest last Thanksgiving. Bell told police he was joking and thought the weapon was an air rifle, not a .22-caliber rifle.

Francis Aumand - director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, which includes the lab - said he could not comment on the Horsman matter because it is a personnel matter.

He said he did not believe there were any problems with fingerprint evidence that would place Vermont prosecutions, either pending or completed, in jeopardy.

Asked whether defense lawyers might be given grounds to ask for new trials or to get their clients exonerated, Aumand said, “We do not think so; however, we will have to be prepared to deal with motions and those [court] findings where appropriate.’’

A filing submitted Wednesday by Lindsay Browning, a lawyer for the state Department of Human Resources, seeking to quash or modify Harnett’s request for records, said that Horsman is currently employed at the lab.

“In March, 2011, Ms. Horsman examined the murder weapon in the underlying criminal case,’’ Browning wrote. “Subsequently, [the department] conducted a confidential employment investigation into allegations that Ms. Horsman may have committed misconduct when examining the homicide weapon.’’

Browning wrote that the investigation “focused on the accuracy of documents and of Ms. Horsman’s statements.’’