Shawnnon Hale was just 24-years-old on the December morning in 2014 when he received a phone call from Denver police at his grandmother’s house, where he lives, telling him he needed to come to the station for questioning. Hale agreed to be at the station by 10:00 AM, but because he was running late, police showed up at his door and busted their way in, aggressively pushing his grandmother aside in the process. He was placed in handcuffs and told he was being arrested for the sexual assault of a woman that took place on Independence Day of that year. Claiming to have DNA proof connecting him to the rape, he was placed in jail, where he spent the next 61 days. It was later revealed two crime lab technicians had mislabeled the DNA samples from the night of the assault and therefore, had identified the wrong man. Hale is now suing the technicians in federal court on the basis of false arrest in breach of his Constitutional rights.
While in prison, Hale was facing a potential life sentence before the charges against him were dropped. He was released with little fanfare and not even so much as an apology two months later, leaving him shaken and confused over what exactly went wrong, or how police had obtained his DNA in the first place, considering he was not the victim’s assailant.
Hale spent that Fourth of July night with a few of his friends at a Denver bar, where they had a few drinks, smoked a few cigarettes and engaged in typical conversation with each other. At one point in the evening, another friend joined them, having brought along a woman he had just met on the street; Hale and his other friends had never met the woman prior to that evening. The woman sat at the bar with them and had a few drinks before inviting them all to watch the fireworks from her apartment complex rooftop, which the group agreed would be fun.
Once there, the group continued to have a great time laughing, drinking, smoking and enjoying the show, with Hale and four of his friends leaving the woman’s apartment building at 3:41 AM. They never saw her again. It wasn’t until the December phone call and subsequent arrest Hale was reminded of that night.
Despite his insistence he had not sexually assaulted the woman, he did tell police he saw her acting “lovey dovey” with a white male earlier in the evening; Hale is black. However, the police weren’t convinced, claiming one of the several cigarette butts they collected from the rooftop on the night of the assault contained his DNA, which matched sperm found in the woman’s vagina. Hale told police, “No, I’m sorry. That’s not possible.” He was, in fact, telling the truth.
Though Hale was charged with felony rape, he insisted there was something amiss regarding the DNA; he hadn’t lied about being at the woman’s apartment and there was video proof of him leaving the complex at 3:41 AM with four others. However, there was also surveillance footage of the victim and a white male exiting the complex at 3:00 AM, 41 minutes before Hale and his friends. The lawsuit states, “The surveillance footage also showed the victim leaving the apartment rooftop with a white male at approximately 3:00 a.m. Nevertheless, the Denver Police Department chose to focus its investigation on the stranger, a black male, whom the victim had met earlier that night.”
In February 2015, a judge deemed there was enough evidence to send Hale’s case to trial; just two days later, though, it was discovered one or both of the lab technicians had mishandled Hale’s DNA, effectively proving him innocent of the charges. He was set free immediately after Denver prosecutor Jason Kramer requested the judge dismiss the case, claiming it would be impossible to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This latest lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hale in U.S. District Court in Colorado against Eric Duvall and Brian Pirot, the two police crime lab technicians responsible for the DNA mix-up, by his attorneys Eudoxie “Dunia” Dickey and David Lane.
Among compensatory and punitive damages, the suit is also asking for a written apology; something neither the lab techs or Denver police provided to Hale for his harrowing ordeal over their inexcusable mistake. Speaking to the Denver Post, Lane said, “When you are in that position and someone’s fate is in your hands, honest mistakes are not tolerated. You are held to a higher standard.”
Neither the Denver Police Department or the defendants in the case have issued any formal statement regarding the suit.