Judge dismisses charges in woman's bite-mark conviction

A judge's gavel inside a courtroom. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

A judge has dismissed all charges against a Pennsylvania woman who spent nearly 11 years incarcerated on discredited bite mark evidence and other since-discredited evidence that she helped beat a man to death in 2001.

Fayette County Judge John Wagner had overturned 39-year-old Crystal Weimer's conviction and sentence in October. Monday's decision means the charges against her cannot be retried by District Attorney Rich Bower, who told the judge he didn't have enough evidence to move forward with the case.

"I'm just really happy to be alive and free and have my freedom back," Weimer told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It's been a long, hard journey going through all this, honey. I don't wish this on anybody."

Wagner overturned the Connellsville woman's third-degree murder conviction and resulting 15- to 30-year sentence after the bite mark expert, Dr. Constantine Karazulas, testified at a brief hearing last fall that his testimony at trial was based on "junk science."

But Weimer remained on an electronic ankle bracelet and faced the prospect of another possible trial before Monday's ruling.

Weimer has repeatedly insisted she's innocent in the 2001 beating death of 21-year-old Curtis Haith, but was convicted in 2006 after another man imprisoned in the case testified that Weimer helped lure Haith to the scene. Karazulas also testified at trial that a bite on Haith's hand matched Weimer.

But Karazulas reviewed his findings after the National Academy of Science in 2009 issued a report discrediting bite mark evidence as an inexact way to match defendants to bite wounds. In short, Karazulas concluded that bite marks can be used to eliminate someone as a suspect, not to conclusively match them.

Bower's predecessor, Jack Heneks, was district attorney when the conviction was overturned last fall and consented to that outcome. Weimer was prosecuted by Nancy Vernon who has since become a Fayette County Common Pleas judge. Vernon didn't immediately comment Tuesday.

Weimer was first charged when an ex-boyfriend told authorities she had confessed her role in Haith's beating to him, but the charges were dropped when he recanted - only to have the man now serving nine to 18 years in prison in Haith's death implicate her, too.

That man, Joseph Stenger, of Everson, pleaded guilty in 2004 to criminal conspiracy to commit criminal homicide and had more serious charges dropped in exchange for testimony against Weimer. Stenger claimed Weimer and two black men went to Haith's Connellsville home before she lured him outside to be beaten with a baseball bat and crowbar; but he's since given a sworn statement claiming that was all false.

"Ms. Weimer should never have been arrested for this murder," said Jeffrey Bresch, a Pittsburgh attorney who volunteered his time to the case. "There is no competent evidence she was involved, and there never was."

Weimer and another of her attorneys, Nilam Sanghvi, said Tuesday they're not sure whether Weimer will sue or pursue other legal action over her conviction.

Weimer had been licensed as an optician before her conviction and hopes to work in that field or return to college for more education - or both.

She's also trying to make up for lost time with three daughters who are now 22, 19 and 17 - and two grandsons born while she was in prison.

"My kids are now grown," Weimer said. "I have two grandsons now I didn't have before."
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