By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Dr. Mary Carrasco, a physician with a master’s degree in public health, heads A Child’s Place in Pittsburgh, affiliated with the Pittsburgh Mercy health system. The clinic manages child abuse claims for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
In April 2010, Dr. Carrasco uncovered serious problems with the work of decorated forensic nurse, Rhonda Henderson.
In 1998, Henderson helped found the forensic nursing program at Saint Vincent Health Center. According to the GoErie.com news website, “the new program assured that a trained forensic nurse, using standard protocols, would interview sexual-assault victims and collect evidence in a timely manner. With specially trained nurses assigned to abuse victims, busy emergency room doctors and nurses wouldn’t have to worry about overlooking evidence, skipping crucial statements or misreading body language by the victims. In 2008, the Crime Victim Center of Erie County honored Henderson and four other forensic nurses for 10 years of teamwork on sexual-assault cases.”
Carrasco was troubled by the fact that Henderson’s findings in an abuse case did not match photos of the victim. This led to a review by the Medical Legal Advisory Board which likewise found serious problems with Henderson’s evidence.
Carrasco alerted Erie County District Attorney, Jack Daneri, who sent eleven Henderson cases out for independent review by a national expert in Colorado. The expert found Henderson’s conclusions in all eleven cases were either false or overstated.
Daneri announced more than twenty defendants had been convicted of sexual assault based on Henderson’s medical examinations. His office is now reviewing all cases in which she was involved. At least two other counties are reviewing Henderson cases, too.
The impact of Henderson’s misconduct is not limited to men falsely convicted and put in prison. Her work also supported custody decisions in civil child abuse and neglect proceedings prosecuted by the Erie County Office of Children and Youth. Children are removed from parents found to be neglectful or abusive, and placed with relatives or become wards of the state and shipped off to foster care.
Out-of-control experts represent a common problem in wrongful child sex abuse convictions. These “experts” pressure and brainwash victims, and induce children to falsely incriminate family members and other adult care providers.
Experts have tremendous power in such cases and results often turn on the victim’s testimony. In a battle between the expert and the defendant, the expert invariably wins.
Henderson is not alone. In Wichita, many cases never even made it to trial. as defendants saddled with inadequate public defenders saw what happened to others wrongfully convicted based on false expert testimony and pled guilty to avoid the risk of longer sentences handed down after trial.
Henderson’s conduct illustrates how one person in a position of special influence can infect an entire justice system and generate many tragic and unjust results. Such misconduct by experts makes it almost impossible to determine the truth.
Moreover, once the forensic waters have been muddied, it is impossible to cleanse them. Some guilty defendants who raped or molested children may be set free because their guilt is now needlessly cast in doubt because Henderson exaggerated medical data. Where there is doubt, the defendant must prevail because guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard, while high, ensures confidence in criminal verdicts.
How many other Rhonda Hendersons are out there? How many innocent prisoners falsely accused of sexually assaulting children now rot in prison? How many parents had their children torn from them on false charges of abuse or neglect based on phony forensic evidence? The damage is incalculable.
Henderson should be prosecuted. She has wrecked many lives. According to D.A. Daneri, however, she is not even being criminally investigated.
Why not? Despite acknowledging that Henderson gave “exaggerated” testimony inconsistent with photographic evidence, prompting his review of her cases, Daneri nevertheless took the totally inconsistent position there is no evidence that “Henderson deliberately falsified or overstated evidence of trauma in her examination results.”
This is a prime example of the prosecution industry covering its own ass. Even Carrasco embraced this perverse collegiality. She acknowledged a forensic medical examiner’s job is to be “objective and not state things that are not there.” But when asked whether she thought that Henderson should be prosecuted, Carrasco replied, “I think that would be a little extreme.”
Extreme? Is fabricating evidence, giving perjured testimony, suborning it in alleged victims, thereby defrauding the courts, a petty matter? In fact, it is tantamount to obstructing justice, a crime. There is no evidence Henderson is mentally ill or did not know what she was doing. She acted knowingly, intentionally and maliciously. Her motives are irrelevant. It is the consequences of her misdeeds that are relevant. She gets a pass because she is part of the prosecution club, and that is unacceptable.
I know from experience. Westchester A.D.A George Bolen made sure I was wrongfully convicted. He suddenly and mysteriously beat a quick path to Florida days before I was freed from prison. Former assistant Medical examiner, Luis Roh, suddenly retired as a result of my civil lawsuit against him and other government officials. Roh was directly involved in fabricating forensic evidence to falsely prove I raped and murdered my high school classmate, Angela Correa. Later, Steven Cunningham pled guilty to these heinous crimes after DNA incontrovertibly proved his guilt.
Roh did not care about the truth based on unbiased, scientifically valid medical findings; his only purpose was to support Bolen. His attitude was, “Tell me what you want to prove, Mr. Prosecutor, and I will prove it.”
Acts performed by those in positions of public trust is an aggravating factor which militates in favor of prosecuting law enforcement and forensic personnel, not a mitigating factor to shield them from prosecution. People in positions of public trust and authority must be held to a higher standard.
Not in Erie County. There, Henderson is held to a lower standard. It makes no sense logically, and it makes no sense as a matter of policy. Defendants wrongfully convicted based on Henderson’s testimony were legally kidnapped, in effect, when they lost their freedom and were shipped off to prison. What about the families separated from their children because of Henderson? Where is their justice? How does shielding Henderson deter others in her position from doing the same thing? What public good is brought about by shielding Henderson from prosecution?
She should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to spotlight this kind of heinous behavior by a medical professional who betrays the public trust. Otherwise, it will happen again, not only in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but across the nation.
Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.