Louis Mickens Thomas shuffled through Graterford Prison’s visiting area, slowly making his way to a small private room where he could escape the din and tell his story. His tall frame is stooped, his beard grizzled, and he has to lean in close to hear. At 82, he could have been the grandfather of the other inmates who sat on rows of plastic chairs, laughing with friends and family or savoring a moment with girlfriends.
Thomas has been in prison for more than 40 years. From the start, he has maintained he is innocent. And he still wants his freedom.
His life sentence appears to be nearing its inevitable end, but a few lawyers, activists, and scientists are on an impassioned quest to free him. Their latest appeal is pending.
They say his conviction – for the murder of a 12-year-old girl – was based on bad science, or perhaps even fraudulent science, carried out by a former Philadelphia crime-lab worker who was later disgraced for having claimed a college-level science background when she had never finished junior high.
Over eight years, she gave “expert” testimony in dozens of cases, including two that sent men to the electric chair.
Others familiar with the case, however, remain equally certain of Thomas’ guilt.
Despite high-tech equipment unheard of in the 1960s, 21st-century forensic science still suffers from some of the problems that left so much uncertainty hanging over Thomas’ conviction. Veterans of the field say that too often, investigators don’t approach a crime scene objectively or evaluate evidence in a scientific way.
Bias creeps in, the experts say, when investigators and crime-lab technicians see themselves as working for just one side.
Thomas’ conviction was based entirely on science – or what was considered science.
The victim, a sixth grader named Edith Connor, was last seen on a Sunday morning in late September 1964. She left on an errand to the local Laundromat and never returned.
Two days later, on a rainy afternoon, some boys found her 5-foot-2, 103-pound body in a narrow alley that ran behind her West Philadelphia home on Sloan Street near 40th Street and Girard Avenue. Her blue jeans and diamond-patterned pullover sweater were torn. Her shoes and socks were missing.
Thomas lived and worked just 50 feet away. He was separated from his wife, was new to the area, and had several assault arrests on his record.
The coroner determined that Edith had been raped, then strangled with rope or something similar. There were no witnesses, fingerprints, or blood.
Instead, investigators had microscopic particles – shoe polish, leather, wax, paint chips, fibers, and threads. A crime-lab worker said she had found materials on the girl’s clothing that looked “similar in all characteristics” to samples taken from Thomas’ shoe-repair shop and apartment, as well as fibers brushed from his clothing and sheets that looked similar to ones from the girl’s clothes.
Forensic biochemist Robert Shaler is among those who suspect the police got the wrong person. Shaler, who recently retired as director of Pennsylvania State University’s forensics program, said neither the crime-lab workers nor the detectives appeared to have tried to reconstruct events.
Instead, Shaler said, he believes they decided that Thomas was the killer based on a hunch and some particles – material that could have blown from Thomas’ shop.
After that, he said, the investigators sought only additional evidence that backed their theory.
Thomas got a retrial, at which he was again found guilty. The prosecutor, Michael Baylson, stands by Thomas’ guilt, as does the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
In his closing argument, Baylson emphasized the sheer volume of paint chips and other microscopic particles, which “should be enough to convince you beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant killed Edith Connor.”
Baylson compared the trace evidence in this case to the atom: “so small no one has ever seen it, yet it has caused fantastic destruction.”
The jury started deliberating at 4 p.m. and returned a guilty verdict by 11:22 p.m.
Before his incarceration, Thomas spent most of his life in New York. He had done a stint in the Army, gotten married, and had two children.
He also had some run-ins with the law.
The first one happened in 1945, when he was 16. The way Thomas explained it, he was late returning with his girlfriend from a date at Coney Island. When the girl got home, she fought with her mother and ran off to the Thomas family house, where she spent the night.
He said the girl’s mother had filed a charge, which went on his record as a rape arrest but was reduced to a “wayward minor” offense.
There were also two assault arrests, only one of which led to jail time – six months in a New York City jail for robbery and assault with a blackjack.
In April 1964, at 36, he said, he separated from his wife and decided to move to Philadelphia. “I wanted to get my kids down here,” said Thomas. He thought he could get a new start.
That summer he started a shoe-repair business on 40th Street near Girard Avenue, and moved into a small apartment in the back.
Though the shops are now empty and boarded up, in 1964 the street was lively, with a bakery, a barbecue joint, a Laundromat, and stores.
Thomas said he had known few of his neighbors on the Sunday morning when Edith disappeared. “There was an uproar in the community when she was missing,” he recalled.
After the body was found, he said, “the police were talking to everybody,” so he didn’t worry when they knocked on his door.
The police report says the night before Edith disappeared, Thomas was out drinking with several other neighborhood men. He had gone to a restaurant early that morning and was returning home to sleep it off about the time Edith was expected back from the Laundromat.
After several visits from detectives, he was handcuffed and taken to Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets.
Detectives interviewed Thomas’ estranged wife, who told them that her husband was obsessed with sex and accused him of making unwanted advances on a teenage babysitter, the police report says. The detectives talked to the babysitter, who corroborated the story, though she wasn’t called as a witness.
After being pronounced guilty, Thomas was sent to Eastern State Penitentiary, now a historic landmark. He was moved several times before he landed at Graterford. “They took away everything I was accustomed to,” he said.
In prison, he had a good record and was active in the Christian Science ministry. He held a variety of prison jobs, including making shoes, cutting hair, and caring for pigs on the prison farm. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University at 64.
His supporters say he was a strong, vigorous man until a year or so ago, when he began to slip physically and mentally.
James McCloskey works in a small building in Princeton, a few blocks from the university. His office is decorated with framed newspaper clippings – stories about wrongly convicted inmates his organization, Centurion Ministries, has helped free.
When an inmate can present a compelling case, McCloskey will start his own investigation, unearthing witnesses and anyone who can give information.
Sometimes he’s been able to free people using DNA testing that wasn’t available at the time of conviction. Centurion Ministries has helped exonerate 44 people, earning McCloskey the respect of a group of lawyers who volunteer to help him.
But the Thomas case haunts him.
McCloskey said that Thomas had started writing to him in 1988, but that he hadn’t taken the case right away. Then, as now, he had hundreds of other people claiming innocence and begging for help.
In 1991, he started to look into it.
After canvassing Thomas’ neighborhood, McCloskey said, he found another man who seemed as likely as Thomas to have committed the crime, but his house wasn’t combed for particles.
Though the District Attorney’s Office calls Thomas’ earlier criminal record “significant,” McCloskey said he didn’t think those crimes came close to approximating the murder of Edith Connor.
Thomas’ record wasn’t admissible at his trial, but the prosecution had a star witness.
ROGUE IN THE CRIME LAB?
Agnes Mallatratt had become something of a local celebrity – a petite, red-haired Sherlock Holmes. In the early ’60s, she was profiled in The Inquirer as “Lab Sleuth” and the Bulletin as a “Nemesis of Criminals.”
The crime lab employed her as a technician – a job she had landed in 1958. In interviews, she was quoted saying she did most of the microscopic analysis herself. The Bulletin story, from 1963, said she had worked on at least 35 high-profile cases of robbery, rape, or homicide.
She also testified in the murder trials that led to death sentences for two men – George Mount and Elmo Smith, according to newspaper accounts.
She was a favorite of police and prosecutors, McCloskey said, because she would find evidence against a suspect that others had missed. She won several awards for her lab work.
Questioned about her expertise on the witness stand, she said she had taken courses at Temple University in forensics, biology, botany, zoology, and criminal law. She said that she taught courses in forensics at Temple, and that over eight years had worked on 4,000 or 5,000 cases and testified in 50 or 60.
For Thomas’ trial, she had prepared slides showing dozens of types of microscopic particles. There were paint chips, brush bristles, and fibers found on the body that looked similar to materials in Thomas’ shop.
Mallatratt accompanied detectives on at least one trip to Thomas’ shop and apartment. In several visits, court and police records show, the investigators collected clothing, sheets, curtains, slipcovers, paint samples, fibers from the furniture, and dust from the floors.
After brushing Thomas’ clothing, she said, she found a millimeter-long printed thread that looked as if it had come from a patterned waistband decorating Edith’s jeans. Mallatratt also reported brushing one of the bedsheets taken from Thomas and finding fibers similar to ones from Edith’s sweater.
She said lavender fibers from one of Thomas’ chairs looked similar to ones found on the girl’s clothing. She also testified that dog hairs on Edith’s clothing resembled those that detectives had clipped from Thomas’ boxer.
More evidence came from paint chips taken from around Thomas’ shop and apartment that looked similar to ones found on the girl’s clothing. The most distinct ones had six layers of color – brown varnish, white, light blue, green, black, and aqua.
Taken together, the trace evidence was enough to convince a jury in 1966 that Thomas was the killer.
The next year, however, events threw that verdict into question.
A suspect had been charged with killing a woman in a Center City hotel, and again the case was based mostly on forensic evidence – fibers and hairs. In a 1967 Inquirer article, the defendant’s lawyers, Patrick Walsh and Lois Forer, said they had found some of Mallatratt’s testimony on hairs and fibers “patently incredible.”
They started looking into her background. Mallatratt had said under oath that she had a degree from Temple as well as a certificate in medical technology.
The lawyers found Mallatratt had never earned a degree or certificate from Temple. She hadn’t graduated from Germantown High School, as she had claimed, nor had she finished junior high. Walsh also questioned a claim that Mallatratt had received a favorable review from the American Society of Forensic Pathologists. He and Forer discovered that the organization didn’t exist. There was an American Academy of Forensic Pathologists, but officials there had never heard of Mallatratt.
The defendant in that case was acquitted.
Retiring U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who was district attorney at the time, said he remembered the case that destroyed Mallatratt’s credibility. “It was a shock. She had been a witness in many court proceedings and was highly respected as an expert.”
Walsh, he said, was an excellent defense lawyer.
Specter, however, said he did not specifically recall the Thomas case, and couldn’t give any judgment on it.
The scandal over Mallatratt’s perjury led to a second trial for Thomas in 1969. Crime-lab director Edward Burke testified that he had supervised Mallatratt’s work and viewed the evidence himself.
Defense attorney A. Charles Peruto repeatedly questioned whether anyone could verify the source of the samples. He got Burke to admit that he hadn’t gone to the scene with Mallatratt, and that she was the one who had put the materials on white paper to be viewed under the microscope. She was the one who later mounted them on slides.
Still, the jury delivered another guilty verdict.
Baylson, the prosecutor in the second trial, said via e-mail that he had no reason to doubt Burke’s credibility.
In a letter to The Inquirer in 1996, Baylson, who went on to become U.S. attorney and now is a judge, quoted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as saying: “The striking similarities of over 25 specimens, if properly admissible, overwhelmingly support the Commonwealth’s theory that appellant killed the deceased and deposited her body in the rear alley.”
The District Attorney’s Office also stands by the verdict due to “the overwhelming physical evidence.”
In 1991, McCloskey thought he had a way to get at the truth. According to police records and the medical examiner’s testimony, the girl appeared to have been raped, and swab samples were taken from her body. Her underpants were reportedly stained with semen.
In a mysterious exchange recorded in the transcript of the second trial, the prosecutor asked the medical examiner about the swabs. “Just one more question,” Baylson said. “What was the blood type?”
The medical examiner answered, “The blood group was type O.”
McCloskey believes they were referring to traces of semen on the swabs, but it wasn’t stated explicitly, and neither lawyer followed it up.
He knew if any semen samples still existed, they could be tested with a technique that was just coming into use: DNA fingerprinting. In 1991, he said, he went to the District Attorney’s Office and asked about the girl’s underpants, which could still hold the rapist’s DNA.
He was told that after being stored for 27 years, the garment had been destroyed just two months earlier. McCloskey doesn’t believe there was any cover-up; in his experience that kind of evidence is routinely thrown away.
McCloskey tried to get the swabs from the Medical Examiner’s Office, but they were nowhere to be found. He also tried to get records of the blood typing cited in the court transcript.
He enlisted the help of Shaler, who was working as a forensic biochemist for the New York City medical examiner. Shaler got a sample of Thomas’ semen to test for blood type. It was type B.
McCloskey also enlisted Center City lawyer Dennis Cogan, who was able to obtain the medical examiner’s records on the case. Nothing indicated any blood typing had been done on semen samples.
Still, McCloskey thought the mismatch in blood types exonerated Thomas, and he went to the District Attorney’s Office again with the information that Thomas was type B while the court transcripts indicated the semen was type O.
The office told him that the statements about blood typing in the court transcript were errors by the stenographer.
Cogan said he remembered how excited Thomas had been at the prospect of getting DNA testing done.
Then Cogan met with Thomas soon after they had learned the evidence had been destroyed. “Tears were running down his cheeks.”
Thomas was so crushed about the destroyed DNA that he wouldn’t speak to McCloskey for weeks.
THE FORENSIC BIOLOGIST
The case also gnaws at Shaler. At 68, the retired director of Penn State’s forensics program is writing a book about Thomas. “I always felt there was more to this case,” he said.
Last month, Shaler drove from his home in Flemington, N.J., to the West Philadelphia crime scene. He peered down the three-foot-wide alley, now overgrown with poison ivy and neck-high bushes.
Shaler said there was something he wanted to see, so he clambered through the growth. When he reached the place where the body had been found, he started snapping pictures. Then he pushed his way, three doors down, to the back of the building that was Thomas’ apartment and shoe-repair business. He said he wanted to see if there was a setup for an exhaust fan.
There was nothing there but a window.
Shaler said he thought it was possible that those particles of shoe polish, paint, and other materials had been blown over from the shop to the debris-covered body.
Shaler went around to the front door of Thomas’ former shop – now a boarded-up, empty building with a heavy padlock on the door.
He also canvassed people on the street and knocked on rowhouse doors. When Shaler told one man that he was researching a 1964 murder, the man responded, “That was my sister,” and identified himself as Alfonzo Connor, Edith’s younger brother.
He didn’t understand at the time why his father couldn’t pick his sister up from the alley and carry her home.
He also firmly believes Thomas is the killer. “Didn’t they find some kind of shoe polish as evidence?” he asked. “To this day I can’t go into a shoe-repair shop. They have that smell.”
Shaler said the preponderance of matching particles looked suspicious. “There’s too much evidence,” he said. “In real life, it doesn’t happen this way.”
Neither Mallatratt nor the lead detective, Arthur Verbrugghe, is still alive to answer Shaler’s doubts about the investigation.
Cogan, one of Thomas’ lawyers, said he had been a friend of Verbrugghe’s, and considered him one of the best in the profession. “He was a hero of mine when I was in the D.A.’s Office and well after that,” Cogan said.
But Cogan also firmly believes Thomas is innocent, even if his hero was involved. He agrees with Shaler that the detectives and Mallatratt failed to build their case in a scientific way.
He said he was suspicious of Mallatratt’s supervisor, Burke, for saying in the second trial that he had verified all of her work.
“I’ve prosecuted homicide cases for years in the D.A.’s Office, and I know it didn’t work that way,” Cogan said.
The transcripts from the first trial say Mallatratt, not Burke, went to Thomas’ house to collect particles and samples for comparison with those found on the body.
How much Burke supervised her work should be recorded in Mallatratt’s lab notes, said Peter DeForest, a professor emeritus of criminalistics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
DeForest said he would need to see those original notes to evaluate the integrity of the work and the conclusions drawn from the evidence. The notes would reveal whether Mallatratt had looked elsewhere in the alley for those same particles that appeared to connect Thomas’ shop and apartment to the victim.
Such an experiment might show that the particles could have gotten on the girl’s clothing after she was left in the alley. No one has been able to find the notes.
Shaler said he thought they had been lost or destroyed, because Mallatratt had been asked to produce them in an unrelated trial and couldn’t.
Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. commuted Thomas’ sentence in 1995, but the parole board refused to let him out. In 2004, a federal court ordered the board to release him. But a year and a half later, he was sent back to prison for a parole violation.
He failed to complete a therapy session required for sex offenders, something Thomas maintains he never was.
His lawyers have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to force the parole board to release him.
Shaler and McCloskey still see hope in the blood typing. Perhaps the medical examiner’s original lab notes would reveal something – if they ever surfaced.
DeForest said he believed that the truth was, at one time, written in those particles of paint, fibers, and debris, and that it would be known, one way or another, if the case had been investigated properly and honestly.
“Physical evidence is ground truth if it’s done right. . . . It’s far superior to eyewitness stuff or interrogations and confessions.”
A 2009 report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences found “serious deficiencies” in a number of techniques, including analysis of trace evidence. The one exception was DNA, which is considered extremely reliable if done properly.
DeForest and colleagues said that some of the criticism was deserved, but that the report was too narrow. The problem lies more in the questions investigators are trying to answer, the evidence they choose to evaluate, and the tests they choose to carry out.
“They have no sense of what’s a testable theory,” he said. In Thomas’ case, he said, it’s hard to tell whether the particles really came from where Mallatratt said they had, or whether anyone evaluated the evidence properly.
The truth may now be unknowable – buried somewhere with those lab notes.