Facing drastic cuts, Acadiana Crime Lab pins hope on state study _lowres

Advocate photo by Brad Kemp -- A forensic chemist work on a sample at the Acadiana Crime Lab on Jan. 6, 2015. Advocate file photo.

Roy Verret’s arrest in the murder of an elderly Jeanerette man in late 2016 hinged on a damning piece of DNA evidence: the victim’s blood was found on a washing machine lid under a carport in Verret’s home.

No physical evidence ties Verret to the home of Howard Poche, 75, who was reported missing on Christmas morning that year when he didn’t show up to church. Authorities turned up his corpse three days later, beaten, stabbed and stuffed inside a garbage can on his back porch.

Two witnesses suggested Verret’s involvement, though the statements were limited to hearsay. The dead man’s blood on Verret’s washing machine was the catalyst for Verret’s arrest, and the linchpin to a capital murder charge that has left him jailed awaiting trial for more than three years.

Judge Vincent Borne last year cited what he called “undisputed” DNA evidence linking Verret to the crime when setting Verret’s bond at $500,000.

But on Friday, the DNA evidence that prosecutors believe merits a death sentence for Verret was cast into grave doubt. Forensic science experts testified that the Acadiana Crime Lab almost certainly mixed up DNA samples from the homes of Poche and Verret -- the murder victim and his alleged killer. They determined no human blood was found on Verret’s washing machine at all.

A forensic chemist from the Acadiana Crime Lab all but admitted the error on the witness stand, testifying that she immediately recognized a potential error in DNA testing of the murder weapon -- a bloody kitchen knife -- and had it retested. The new result conflicted with the first, but the chemist did not investigate further, she admitted.

Suzanna Ryan, a forensic scientist who reviewed the initial lab results and also conducted a separate test for Verret’s defense team, said the samples had been improperly placed next to one another during testing. That would explain the crime lab’s confounding initial results, which found none of Poche’s DNA on the kitchen knife, Ryan said.

The knife, which the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office had pegged as the murder weapon, also contained an unusually small amount of DNA, considering that blood tends to produce larger quantities. The washing machine lid swab, meanwhile, tested negative for blood. Yet it contained 100 times the amount of DNA as the knife.

Ryan conducted a new sample test at Pure Gold Forensic, the private lab she directs in Redlands, California. The results, she said, confirmed her suspicions: the swabs had been switched.

Another forensic scientist, Gina Murphy, a DNA consultant based in Louisiana, testified that she arrived at the same conclusion after reviewing both sets of results.

The Acadiana Crime Lab chemist who first tested the swabs, Winnie Kurowski, testified that she was surprised when the knife swab returned a mixture of DNA that excluded Poche as a contributor. That prompted Kurowski to request the knife itself, to see if it matched the swabs that investigators provided her.

Kurowski’s test on the knife returned a more logical result: it contained Poche’s blood and no one else’s. But her first report to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office in April 2017 focused only on the washing machine lid swab, which she concluded with 99.9% certainty contained Poche’s DNA. With those results, deputies quickly secured an arrest warrant for Verret and arrested him on a capital murder charge.

Questioned by Verret’s lawyer, Stephen Singer, as to why her report didn’t address the confounding test results for the knife, Kurowski replied that the report “was issued because the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office needed a report.”

“I wouldn’t say it was pressure,” Kurowski added.

Kurowski admitted she is no longer certain Verret’s washing machine contained Poche’s blood DNA, prompting Singer to ask the judge for Verret’s immediate release from jail.

“There is no evidence to continue to hold him,” Singer said after the hearing. “Unless you have probable cause, you just can’t hold someone.”

Judge Borne declined, but he scheduled a new bond hearing for Verret on June 15.

District Attorney Bo Duhe said Saturday that his office was reviewing Verret's prosecution in light of the testimony.

"Prior to yesterday’s hearing, we relied on the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory reports with regard to the results of the DNA analysis on the voluminous items of evidence submitted for forensic testing in this case. Yesterday, for the first time, we became aware of the probability that two samples may have been inadvertently switched during the DNA extraction process," Duhe wrote.

"The test results from an independent laboratory and a DNA consultant were provided to us yesterday in connection with this notification. In response, we will expeditiously review those findings and make the appropriate decisions about how to proceed in this case."

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If the alleged lab mixup ends the prosecution against Verret, it wouldn’t be the first foul-up to mar the investigation into Poche’s killing, which began in bizarre fashion as relatives showed up at his house after being jarred awake with word he’d gone missing.

At Poche’s house, they found a woman he had been paying for sex, Michele King, in yellow hospital socks, claiming to be Poche’s cleaning person. She was mopping up blood.

Jeanerette police arrived, questioned King and searched the house. Officers found a bloody kitchen knife, but no sign of Poche. The police chief at the time, Jeff Matthews, deemed the scene to be “cleared” and called out a search for Poche.

Poche was still missing two days later when police found King hiding in a run-down vacant trailer. Matthews asked Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal to take over. The next day, sheriff’s deputies returned to Poche’s home on Guiberteau Street, finding the trash can on a back porch with the old man’s body inside.

Police arrested a suspect on a murder charge, then let him go. But the investigation seemed to right itself four months later, in April 2017, when DNA test results led police to book Verret.

King had acknowledged on Christmas morning that she’d had sex with Poche the night before in exchange for drug money. She said she had returned in the morning to clean the place, but pleaded ignorance of the elderly man’s whereabouts.

Jeanerette police interviewed Verret -- who was King’s boyfriend -- the morning Poche went missing, then drove him to St. Mary Parish, where he and King lived on Verret Lane.

Singer argued that police got it right the first time, when they dropped him at home. Poche’s blood was never found on Verret’s washing machine, the experts said in court Friday. The DNA that did turn up on the washing machine wasn’t blood, though it did return a positive match: to King.

King was also charged with capital murder and is in jail.

Ryan, the forensic scientist who reviewed Kurowski’s work, said the mixup appears to have happened during DNA extraction, which occurs after testing for the presence of blood. That means the crime lab’s blood test results accurately corresponded with the swabs tested, but the botched extraction tied the swabs to the wrong individuals, she said.

Ryan’s initial blood test, like Kurowski’s, returned a presumptive positive for the presence of blood on Verret’s washing machine. But that was a test for any blood, human or animal, and false positives are not uncommon, she said. More specific follow-up tests for human blood are considered more conclusive, and Ryan said her second test for human blood on the washing machine came back negative.

So too did Kurowski’s second blood test, according to notes filed in the court record that accompanied her April 2017 report on the washing machine. But Kurowski crossed out the negative notation and indicated the test had come back inconclusive.

While the test itself had not returned an inconclusive result -- it was clearly negative, as shown in photos of the test in the court record -- Kurowski noted in the margins that she thought it was inconclusive because DNA was present on the swab. It was Poche’s DNA, which, according to Verret’s lawyers, was extracted from the blood on the knife, not the washing machine.

The April 2017 crime lab report, which led to Verret’s swift arrest, noted results of two tests for blood on the washing machine: one presumptive positive, the other inconclusive. It did not mention the negative result.

Singer railed against the idea that the presence of DNA could be the basis for invalidating a negative blood test result, since human DNA can be transferred from various substances. An Iberia Parish prosecutor, Robert Vines, in his most extensive cross- examination of the day, suggested the washing machine swab could have contained a combination of blood and other skin cells.

While Kurowski acknowledged the possibility she had mixed up the sample, she said she couldn’t be sure without retesting. That led to a heated argument between the lawyers over who should hold the DNA evidence, which has been in Kurowski’s custody.

Singer demanded Borne or another neutral party hold the evidence, but Borne said he could not properly do so. Vines suggested the Sheriff’s Office, but Singer objected..

“The problem with the Sheriff’s Office is they are not an independent agency,” Singer said. “There is too much risk at this point of something going wrong.”

Singer eventually relented when Borne issued an order that the evidence not be touched while in the Sheriff’s Office’s custody.

-Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.  

Email Ben Myers at bmyers@theadvocate.com. Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.