Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fingerprint scandal extends grip

Seminole investigation spreads to management as murder cases are reviewed

Rene Stutzman
Sentinel Staff Writer

May 24, 2007

SANFORD -- An internal investigation into the fingerprint scandal at the Seminole County Sheriff's Office has now spread to management.

Ann Mallory does not read fingerprints, but the longtime employee supervised three department employees whose fingerprint work has been discredited.

The print examiner at the center of the controversy, Donna Birks, 49, reported directly to Mallory, according to department records.

Print analysts at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have found five bad calls by Birks. In four cases, FDLE says the prints were inconclusive.

In the fifth, Birks had said the print on the window of a burglarized 1996 Chevy belonged to a 16-year-old Oviedo boy. FDLE examiners say it belonged to someone else.

Exactly why Mallory is now under investigation is not clear. Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Lemma said that information would come out after the investigation concludes.

But according to a March memo from another department print analyst, Birks told a co-worker that Mallory was letting her cut corners, perhaps unknowingly.

When two co-workers would not verify a print identification Birks had made, Birks sent it to a retired co-worker, Bill McQuay, who did verify it, according to the memo by Tara Williamson, whose analysis also is under question.

Birks told Williamson that Mallory authorized McQuay's review, according to the memo.

FDLE says that print was inconclusive.

Mallory also allowed Birks to violate a print-reading rule by having a trainee with just three weeks of experience verify another of Birks' identifications, according to the memo.

Williamson verified two of Birks' bad calls, McQuay three, according to Chris White, Seminole County's chief prosecutor.

Williamson is still with the Sheriff's Office but no longer reading prints. McQuay, 60, retired two years ago.

Birks, Williamson and McQuay worked more than 1,200 cases that wound up in court.

Prosecutors have been combing through them for weeks, trying to identify those that hinged exclusively or nearly so on fingerprint identifications.

They've focused on 17 cases, five of them murders, and asked FDLE to rush through reworks. Two of those cases put men on death row.

John Buzia was convicted of killing his 71-year-old boss with an ax, and Clemente Javier "Shorty" Aguirre was convicted of killing a 68-year-old woman in a wheelchair and her daughter.

FDLE has reworked the suspect print in Aguirre's case -- a bloody chef's knife -- and concluded that Birks went too far when she said it matched Aguirre.

However, other evidence ties Aguirre to the crime, including blood on his clothes.

A re-examination of the Buzia case has not been finished, White said.

Birks said a bloody fingerprint found at the scene belonged to Buzia, but even if that's discredited, there's little chance he will go free.

The victim's wife told jurors that Buzia attacked her that afternoon with an ax and left her, bloody and disabled, in a back room while he attacked her husband. Also, Buzia confessed to authorities.

Although the five murder cases have the highest profile, none was based solely on fingerprint evidence.

In fact, most had DNA that also tied the suspect to the victims.

It's the other 12 cases that could pose the biggest problems. In many of them, there is "very little to corroborate" the print identification, White said.

They include robberies, a kidnapping, car thefts and burglaries. Two suspected robbers, including one also accused of kidnapping, were convicted and are serving 35-year prison terms, according to court records.

FDLE has reworked about 150 of Birks' cases. The Sheriff's Office has asked it to reanalyze about that many more, but the total could go much higher.

Lemma said that in Birks' 13-year career with the Sheriff's Office, she made identifications in about 1,500 cases.

She has not testified in any cases since she was suspended with pay April 4.

"I don't think she'll ever be asked to testify anymore for anything," said Assistant Public Defender Tim Caudill, who represented Aguirre and other murder suspects in cases that Birks worked.

Rene Stutzman can be reached at or 407-324-7294.

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