Hair evidence questioned in ’85 homicides
Nearly three decades after three East Washington widows were slain, an attorney for convicted killer Roland Steele has brought to light the U.S. Department of Justice’s review of an FBI witness who was found to have overstated the reliability of hair comparison as a direct link between Steele and one of the victims.
Steele, now 66, was convicted in January 1986 of three counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of 88-year-old Lucille Horner, 86-year-old Minnie Warrick and 85-year-old Sarah Knutz.
The women were leaving a charity luncheon at the former Club Internationale, Millcraft Center, in Washington June 21, 1985, when witnesses said they met Steele, formerly of McKees Rocks and Canonsburg. Witnesses saw him talking with Horner and later driving her car.
The women’s bodies, minus their jewelry, were found the next day under a pile of old tires and brush in the Cecil Township coal mine village National Two, where Steele once lived. Karate-style blows were determined to have caused their deaths. Their purses were found at the side of the dirt road, credit cards and cash missing.
After a series of appeals, Steele was scheduled to die by lethal injection June 18, 2009. A federal judge, however, issued an indefinite stay of execution so Steele could seek federal review of his conviction and death sentence.
In a petition that arrived Thursday at the Washington County clerk of courts office, Steele’s federal defense attorney, Billy H. Nolas, presented correspondence that shows the work of the FBI hair examiner, Andrew Podolak, had come into question in another case, prompting a review by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Podolak’s conclusion in an unrelated case had been found to be incorrect, so in 2002, the FBI conducted a review of 26 cases which involved Podolak to determine if he made “incorrect associations.”
The FBI asked that state police re-submit hair samples of Minnie Warrick in Steele’s case so its laboratory could re-examine them. They were found to have deteriorated to the point that they could not be analyzed.
Nolas said he discovered only recently that Podolak’s work was being reviewed.
John Crab Jr., special counsel for the Department of Justice, found Podolak to have given testimony that was erroneous and invalid.
This “affected the jury’s verdict, as it was the only direct physical evidence connecting Mr. Steele with the victims and was emphasized by the prosecutor in arguing Mr. Steele’s guilt,” Nolas contends.
Despite the testimony of many witnesses in Washington who said they saw Steele wearing a blue-gray suit the day the women disappeared, the hairs Podolak said matched those of Minnie Warrick were found on a brown jacket and pair of trousers of the same color.
“It is noted that hair comparisons do not constitute a basis of absolute personal identification,” Nolas wrote in his 28-page petition, but Podolak said he had the ability to make such comparisons with certainty.
“My opinion is that those hairs came from Minnie Warrick,” Podolak testified at Steele’s trial, but Nolas claims there is no scientific basis for this assertion and that Podolak “dramatically and falsely overstated his ability to draw such a conclusion. … (His) testimony was not only false, it was also inadmissible. There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Steele with the crime.”
The defense attorney said the FBI, Canadian Mounted Police and Scotland Yard discount that hair is as individual as a fingerprint. Steele’s defense attorney should have requested public funds to retain an expert who could have refuted Podolak’s testimony, Nolas wrote in his petition, in which he also questioned Podolak’s statement that he had conducted 16,000 hair examinations, branding it “likely inflated and exaggerated, calling his credentials into question.”
Nolas claims Podolak’s testimony denied Steele a fair trial, and he asked that Steele be allowed to have a hearing on what he called tainted evidence.
Steele’s case was tried during an era before science and technology included DNA evidence. The FBI review of Steele’s case was conducted to ensure that FBI lab reports and examiners’ testimony met accepted scientific standards and to identify those cases in which it was below standard so that “any appropriate remedial action may be taken.”
Prosecuting Steele was the late John C. Pettit, who served six, four-year terms as Washington County district attorney. Then-assistant public defender Paul Tershel represented Steele, whose fate rested in the hands of a jury chosen in Erie County because of extensive pre-trial publicity here.
District Attorney Eugene Vittone could not immediately be reached for comment on Steele’s petition for a hearing.
Nolas, a member of the capital habeas corpus unit in the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, also represented Steele in a 2000 Washington County court proceeding in which Steele was seeking a new trial or life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.
Nolas at that time also focused on errors in the trial, including misleading testimony from Podolak.
Steele, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution, Greene County, won a Carnegie Hero medal when he was 17 for pulling a boy from the path of a train. He has denied involvement in the women’s deaths, claiming he was a victim of mistaken identity.