A Connellsville woman’s third-degree murder conviction and sentence were vacated and she was granted a new trial in Fayette County Court after an expert whose testimony led to her conviction refuted his previous findings.
“There is no science in bite mark evidence,” said Dr. Constantine Karazulas, who testified on behalf of 37-year-old Crystal Weimer at a Post Conviction Relief Act hearing on Thursday.
Karazulas told a jury in 2006 that a bite mark found on the hand of 21-year-old Curtis Haith after he was beaten to death and shot was caused by Weimer, and he testified that he reached that conclusion to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.
“If the commonwealth came to you today with this set of facts, would you even conduct an analysis to render an opinion at all?” asked attorney Jeffrey J. Bresch.
“No, I would not,” Karazulas replied.
According to trial testimony, Weimer and Haith had a physical altercation on Jan. 27, 2001, and Haith hit her. To even the score, she enlisted Joseph Stenger and two other unidentified men to go to Haith’s house, where she lured Haith outside and the two men beat him, court records state.
An autopsy conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht revealed Haith died from blunt force trauma, having been beaten about the head with a baseball bat and crowbar. Additionally, he was shot in the face, but the autopsy indicated the wound was non-fatal.
Weimer’s attorneys argued the alleged bite mark, which they said Wecht didn’t note as such in his report, was the only physical evidence that directly tied Weimer to the crime scene.
Karazulas told President Judge John F. Wagner Jr., “In 2009, my whole world changed.” He said the National Academy of Science (NAS) published a report on research it conducted into the efficacy of different types of evidence used in court.
What the NAS concluded, according to Karazulas, was, “The only evidence that was scientific at this point was DNA.”
He said the bite marks should have been measured and documented so that they could be compared against the measurements of suspects’ teeth. The photographs he received from the prosecution were taken from the autopsy report, he said, and included no such measurements.
Additionally, Karazulas said that when he originally conducted his analysis, he only had the mold from one person’s teeth to compare against the photo of the bite mark. According to current standards, he would need to have had molds from the teeth of anyone with whom Haith had come into contact around the time of his death, Karazulas said.
Furthermore, after comparing the marks against multiple sets of teeth, there could have been multiple matches, Karazulas testified.
Assistant District Attorney Anthony S. Iannamorelli Jr. questioned Karazulas’ credibility when Bresch moved for a new trial at the conclusion of the doctor’s testimony.
Wagner complimented Karazulas for admitting his error.
“One of the most difficult things for a professional to do would be to come in and admit he’s incorrect,” Wagner said.
“Clearly, it generates a new trial,” he said.
A group of women in the gallery appeared excited to hear the ruling, and as Weimer was led from the courtroom, one of them shouted, “I love you, mom!”
Bresch explained after the hearing that he took on the case pro bono after Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project reached out to him to see if he had any interest in joining “Team Crystal”.
“This is a case that needs to be tried, because Crystal’s story needs to be told,” Bresch said, adding that he genuinely thinks, after reading through the entire case history, Weimer was wrongly convicted.
With the support of his firm, Jones Day, Bresch said he took Weimer’s case, and looks forward to getting her back to a life outside of prison.
This is not the first time Weimer’s defense has called into question the bite mark evidence.
Assistant Public Defender Mary Campbell Spegar argued in a pretrial hearing in 2005 that prosecutors did not present “legally competent evidence” that Weimer was involved in Haith’s death, particularly drawing attention to Karazulas’ analysis.
Retired Senior Judge Ralph C. Warman, who presided over the suppression hearing, denied the motion to preclude the bite mark evidence from trial, saying the science of odontology, “which is based on the discovery that the characteristics of individual human dentition are highly unique” was well-established, and he was able to find over 100 cases that involved bite mark comparison.
Weimer was not initially charged in the case until 2004, and Warman dismissed the charges against her after an eyewitness recanted the statement he gave police during the initial investigation.
In September 2004, police re-filed the homicide charges with the use of statements given by Joseph Stenger, who also was charged in Haith’s death.
Stenger pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit homicide in April 2006, and was sentenced to nine to 18 years.
Weimer has been incarcerated since 2006 on a 15- to 30-year sentence. Her attorneys requested she be released on $20,000 unsecured bond with electronic monitoring pending the new trial, which Wagner granted.
Because Weimer has been in the custody of the State Correctional Institute at Cambridge Springs, she was required to return there in order to process her release.