SAVE SCOTT LEHR FROM WRONGFUL EXECUTION

An innocent man was convicted of 1991-92 Phoenix rapes and murders

Why Scott Lehr?

Other persons of interest came to the attention of investigators of the 1991-92 crimes that became known as the "baby-seat" rapes, but none were thoroughly investigated. Since the victims had reported a broad--and sometimes conflicting--array of characteristics, it's not surprising that no one man was found to be a match for the suspects in all the cases. The investigation eventually came to focus on Scott Lehr based on the assumption that a single rapist was the registered owner of two cars reportedly used in the attacks. In June 1992, Detective Scoville of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office reviewed a printout listing all General Motors vehicles with a partial license plate beginning ADW whose registered owner also owned a Nissan car. Scoville found only one person meeting all the criteria. The General Motors vehicle was a 1979 Chevy Caprice, Arizona plate ADW-015. The Nissan was a 1986 Sentra two-door sedan. The owner of both was Scott Alan Lehr. What's more, Lehr had sold the Caprice in December 1991 and bought the Sentra in February 1992, the month when Meredith Porter was raped.

Investigators were elated by the apparent breakthrough. At 32 years old, Scott Lehr was within the age range of the suspect, and his driver's license photo showed a man resembling the vague composite sketch scrapped together from victims' varying accounts. His license records gave his employer as Scott's Tree Service. A self-employed tree-trimmer would have the freedom to set his own hours. Scott's cars often carried a baby-seat for his youngest daughter, although it was a maroon seat, rather than the blue one reported.

Other facts should have urged caution in suspecting Scott of the crimes. First, the rapist or rapists might have used borrowed or stolen cars, never registering them legally. Then, the fundamental criteria for the motor vehicles records search--owning both a General Motors car and a Nissan car--were deeply flawed. Meredith Porter had identified a Nissan truck or a four-door Chevy Spectrum sedan, not a two-door Nissan sedan. In addition, Scott's Nissan was visibly dented and rusted on the passenger side, a fact that Meredith Porter had never mentioned. Also, Scott hadn't owned the Chevy Caprice since December 1991, when his wife had an accident and the couple sold the damaged car. However, according to Maricopa County Sheriff's records, someone meeting the description of the "baby-seat" rapist had tried to pick up a woman in a similar vehicle, with a baby-seat, on March 5, 1992.

In addition, Scott's license plate number for the Caprice, Arizona ADW-015, was not a plate implicated in any of the crimes. Under hypnosis, Alison Brooks identified the license number of the man who had raped her as something like AZW or ACW-529. Emily Caldwell clearly remembered the plate number of the suspect in her case as ADW-519 or ADW-515. Emily was sure of all the numbers except the last: it was either 519 or 515. And Phoenix police would soon learn that one of the exact plates being sought, ADW-519, had been stolen and could not be accounted for during the time period of the "baby-seat" crimes. The plate number had been issued to a vehicle that was subsequently reposessed, and the plates disappeared sometime between February 11 and March 7, 1991. Emily was raped on February 23. Finally, Scott's cream-colored Caprice had a black cloth top, an obvious feature that not one of the victims had mentioned in her description of the vehicle used in the crime.

Then, the physical descriptions of the suspect didn't quite fit: at 6 feet, 1 inch, Scott was taller than the suspect they were looking for, if one man had committed all the crimes in question. The victims' estimates of height had ranged from 5'6" to 6'2". Nor did Scott have the large, protuberant ears or blue eyes that Meredith Porter reported. Scott changed his facial hairstyle frequently, but he had never worn the long beard that Amy Perry remembered.

Police would also discover that Scott was a devoted husband and father with no criminal record. Although the image of an apparently decent citizen who turns out to be a vicious criminal haunts our imaginations, statistically it's much more likely for rapists to have a history of assault, robbery, larceny, or serious traffic offenses. Finally, Scott had a solid alibi for the Meredith Porter case, the only case possibly involving a car resembling a Nissan Sentra. On the night of February 23, after his twin daughters' birthday party, Scott was sound asleep, with his wife and his cousin awake in the living room in full view of the apartment's only door.

Although very little was known about the deaths of Margaret Christorf, Michelle Morales, and Belinda Cronin, Maricopa County investigators encouraged the local media to blame the murders on a single 'baby-seat" rapist. All three women had apparently died from blows to the head, but, among the assault victims, only Meredith Porter had been hit on the head, and not with anything near deadly force. Another reason investigators linked the murders to the assaults was that Cronin's remains were found near where Nancy Caporaso was raped. However, the "baby-seat" crimes had been so widely publicized by the time of Cronin's death that it would have been tempting for a copy-cat criminal to take advantage of the site as a place to bury the murdered woman. Evidence against the theory that a single "baby-seat" rapist had also murdered the women included the fact that all three victims knew men who had the opportunity and may have had the inclination to treat them violently. In addition to men known to the victims, on the nights of their disappearances, Christorf and Morales werr spotted at convenience stores in the company of men who were not Scott Lehr. On the night she was last seen alive, Cronin was on her way to the home of an older man with whom she was involved.

Two detectives arrived at Scott's home on June 25, 1992, and asked him to accompany them to the Maricopa Sheriff's Office for questioning about a series of crimes. Asserting his innocence, he went willingly and gave samples of his saliva and hair for analysis. Although "eyewitess" identification is notoriously unreliable, no better than flipping a coin, an in-person lineup was a deciding factor in charging Scott Lehr with the rapes and murders of ten women. No other persons of interest participated in the lineup; the other men shown to the victims were either prisoners held on unrelated charges or County Sheriff's Office employees. The assaults had been committed from 4 months to 16 months before the lineup--more than enough time for the victims' memories of the crimes to degrade. Scott had been questioned without an attorney and did not have an attorney at the lineup. His position was in the center of the line of six "suspects," and he was wearing a darker shade of prison uniform than the other men, which made him stand out. The rape victims were brought in to view the lineup in rapid succession, so that it may have been possible for them to overhear one another's comments. Teresa Martinez was positive that Scott Lehr was NOT the man who assaulted her. Nancy Caporaso, Alison Brooks, and Meredith Porter said they were sure that the rapist was suspect number 3, Scott Lehr. (Caporaso had also called police the year before and identified another man, whom she'd spotted at a convenience store, as the rapist. That man had been located but was not arrested.) Amy Perry said that she couldn't be sure that Scott Lehr had attacked her. Nicole Churchill was 85-90% certain in her identification of Scott, but Emily Caldwell was only 60% convinced. (Caldwell said that the rapist had a face like Lehr's but legs like those of another man in the lineup.) Mona Barnett apparently did not view the lineup.Scott was nevertheless charged with assaulting all of the women, except for Teresa Martinez, in whose case the guilty man had been positively identified by investigators but was never prosecuted nor considered a suspect in the other cases. Scott was also charged with the murders of Margaret Christorf, Michelle Morales, and Belinda Cronin, although there was no evidence to link him to those crimes, and, to the contrary, evidence that pointed to other men.

The photo above shows palm fronds and other waste near the site where Belinda Cronin's remains were found and where Nancy Caporaso was raped. During the trial, the prosecution's witness made undocumented claims that discarded palm fronds were found near several of the crime scenes. The implication was that Scott Lehr, a tree-trimmer by trade, had dumped the fronds there. A Maricopa County Sheriff's surveillance team had noted Lehr disposing of tree-trimmings at a landfill, so investigators knew that Lehr was not in the habit of illegal dumping in the desert. The palm fronds pictured here were photographed in 2003, eleven years after Lehr was incarcerated. Others discarded the palm fronds, and others committed the crimes.

The Trials

Because not one of the murders or the "baby-seat" assaults offered convincing evidence against Scott Lehr, his court-appointed attorneys, Philip Seplow and Michael Reeves, attempted to "sever" the cases and have them tried individually. Instead, the prosecution was allowed to try most of the cases together, in one long and very confusing trial that began on September 18, 1996, five to six years after the crimes, and lasted two months. The prosecution followed a strategy of exaggerating similarities among the cases and blurring differences.

The trial began promisingly for establishing Scott Lehr's innocence, when the first victim, Mona Barnett, confidently identified as her assailant another man in the courtroom, who looked very different from Lehr. The testimony of Nancy Caporaso revealed key discrepancies from what she had previously told investigators. However, under the guidance of prosecutor William Clayton, Caporaso, who had identified another man as her assailant in 1991, pointed to Scott Lehr as the rapist. Moving quickly to the murder of Margaret Christorf, the prosecution elicited outrage against the murderer by calling witnesses to provide touching details about Christorf and her manner of death. However, Judge Stephen A. Gerst ruled that the jury would not be allowed to learn about other men known to Christorf who were more likely suspects than Lehr.Victim Amy Perry, only 10 years old at the time of the crimes, took the stand next. In his questioning, Prosecutor Glayton worked to downplay the many conflicting details between the police reports and the testimony.

When the trial focused on the murder of Belinda Cronin,  Phil Seplow failed to cross examine the osteopath whom Cronin had been on her way to see when she disappeared. A friend of Cronin's mother testified that a ring Scott had bought at a garage sale had likely belonged to Cronin, even though the murdered woman's ring had been in excellent condition and Scott's ring was worn and broken. Testimony on the murder of Michelle Morales revealed that investigators had taken photos of tire tracks and cowboy-boot prints near the murdered woman's body but never followed up on that evidence. In addition, no attempt had been made to locate the older man Morales was seen with shortly before her death. Medical Examiner Philip Keen, who autopsied Morales, testified that any DNA evidence would have been "badly decomposing" and--shockingly--that hair evidence found on her body had apparently been lost. In the case of Meredith Porter, police reports stated that the man who raped her, on a night when Scott was home with his family, had protuberant ears and smooth hands, unlike Scott. Despite these and other discrepancies, Porter identified Scott in the courtroom as the guilty man.

Except for some of the victims' highly subjective courtroom identifications of Scott Lehr, the cases against him were flimsy. What likely swayed the jury was the State's claim of having reliable DNA evidence in a few of the crimes. At the time of this trial, forensic DNA analysis was still in its infancy. Susan Narveson, supervising criminalist for the Arizona Department of Public Safety  (ADPS) Crime Lab, and members of her staff offered confusing testimony and blurry images of DNA autorads that appeared to implicate Scott in the murder of Margaret Christorf and the rapes of Mona Barnett, whose description of a blond assailant did not match Scott Lehr, and Meredith Porter, who was attacked on a night when Scott had a solid alibi. (It's worth noting that, according to a 2003 Arizona Republic article, "Phoenix police crime lab technicians blundered nine cases while analyzing DNA evidence to be used against murder, rape, and aggravated assault suspects" in 2001. Susan Narveson was also the administrator of the Phoenix police crime lab at the time of the errors. Narveson responded to the press that "It's an honest mistake made with the best intentions."

Incredibly, even in the case of Michelle Morales, the prosecution offered analysis of degraded DNA, which the State's own expert witness agreed might be the DNA of an insect. When an image of this questionable DNA, showing only a single smudgy band, was held up before the jury, the prosecution's witness claimed that Scott Lehr could not be eliminated as the donor of that DNA. Indeed, no animal could have been ruled out, based on that evidence.

 

The defense offered its own learned DNA expert, Dr. Aimee Hayes Bakken. When Bakken testified, Judge Gerst severely limited her criticism of the reliability of the State's DNA analysis. The jury did not have a chance to weigh the biased, sloppy methods of the ADPS lab against its claim of DNA evidence implicating Lehr--even in the case of Meredith Porter, when he had an airtight alibi and could not have been the donor of the DNA. As the first trial neared its end, Prosecutor Clayton's melodramatic closing arguments sometimes contradicted the judge's instructions to the jury, and Clayton's narrative often misrepresented the actual testimony. The jury rushed to return their verdict in time to go home for Thanksgiving. They took a couple of hours to find Scott Lehr guilty of every charge, including the three murders.

Scott was then tried in April 1997 for crimes against the remaining three victims, Nicole Churchill, Emilly Caldwell, and Alison Brooks. Depite these victims' histories of unreliability, the jury convicted Scott on all counts, even of aggravated assault with a dangerous instrument in the case of Emily Caldwell, who testified that the assailant was only trying to scare her away when he threw small stones at her. On August 8, 1997, Scott Lehr was sentenced to death by lethal injection, plus seventeen consecutive life sentences.

Appeals

In 2002, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed some of Scott Lehr's convictions, including the murders of Margaret Christorf and Michelle Morales. He was retried on the overturned charges in 2009. The State again claimed to have DNA evidence that implicated Scott, even in the case of Morales, in which the already questionable DNA had supposedly been consumed by testing for the first trial.When five jurors applauded the testimony of a prosecution witness, only one of the biased jurors was removed from the jury. Predictably, this jury found Scott guilty on all charges and again sentenced him to death for the murders of Morales and Christorf. On December 16, 2016, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Andrew G. Klein dismissed the initial petition for Post-Conviction Relief filed on behalf of Scott Lehr. Scott’s legal representatives will file a motion for review in the Arizona Supreme Court.

Please Add Your Voice

If you have information or expertise that could help save Scott Lehr from wrongful execution, please contact marthamary49@gmail.com  We are especially interested in finding impartial forensic and legal experts who can reevaluate the integrity of the DNA analysis used to convict him. In addition, please write Arizona legislators, asking them to abolish the death penalty. Thank you for your support.  

The Book--The Desert Murders

A detailed account of the crimes, the trials, and Scott Lehr's appeals is explored in a book that will be available on March 1, 2015. Buy The Desert Murders: How Junk Science, Witness Contamination, and Arizona Politics Condemned an Innocent Man by Mary Lash at your local bookstore or on Amazon.com. Contact marthamary49@gmail.com for additional information.

For Further Information

To learn more about the issues of wrongful conviction and the death penalty in the United States, see the Web sites and books listed on the resources page.