McCrory pardons man in 27-year-old Charlotte rape case

Gov. Pat McCrory speaks during a visit to the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees conference in September at the Charlotte Marriott City Center.
Gov. Pat McCrory speaks during a visit to the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees conference in September at the Charlotte Marriott City Center. WWW.MICZEKPHOTO.COM

Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday pardoned a man in a 27-year-old Charlotte rape case.

McCrory phoned Timothy Scott Bridges to inform him of his decision to issue a pardon of innocence, McCrory’s office announced. The call followed an earlier in-person meeting between the governor and Bridges.

Early this year, prosecutors dismissed indictments against Bridges, in part citing erroneous microscopic hair testimony offered by an FBI-trained Charlotte-Mecklenburg police examiner .

The Washington Post reported last year that flawed testimony by an elite FBI forensic unit affected at least 2,500 cases nationwide, including the Charlotte case.

The Justice Department and FBI formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in the unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000, the Post reported.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project.

One case involved Bridges, who was serving a life sentence for the rape of an 83-year-old disabled woman in her Charlotte home in May 1989, according to the Post. In 1991, Bridges was convicted of first-degree rape, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and breaking and entering in the case.

The woman lived between The Plaza and North Davidson Street, the Observer reported at the time. She was hospitalized for three months and later lived in a nursing home.

The woman, who died in 1990 of unrelated causes, gave varying descriptions of her attacker and never identified Bridges, according to the Post.

A Charlotte forensic expert, among hundreds trained by the FBI before 2000, matched two hairs at the crime scene to Bridges, then 22, according to court papers.

The expert asserted there was only a 1-in-1,000 chance that they might have come from someone else, testimony the FBI review said “exceeds the limits of the science,” according to the Post.

No accepted research exists on how often hair from different people may appear the same. The FBI now uses DNA testing in combination with hair examination.

“If offered today, the hair evidence would be inadmissible, and without the hair evidence, there was insufficient evidence to convict Mr. Bridges,” his attorney, Lauren Miller of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, wrote at the time. Bridges’ legal team also included lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project

In October 2015, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office agreed to a motion that granted Bridges a new trial. Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell released him from prison the same day and ordered a new trial. But the office later found no additional forensic evidence implicating Bridges, and several key witnesses are dead.

After Bridges’ release, additional DNA tests were run on a men’s coat found on the bed at the crime scene, as well as a cigarette butt found in the coat’s pocket, according to the governor’s office. None of the DNA matched Bridges. In February, prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges against Bridges.

Bridges, who could not be reached Thursday, served 24 years and seven months in prison. Anyone who receives a pardon of innocence is eligible for $50,000 per year spent in prison, up to a maximum $750,000.

His case “is one of the first to be litigated involving erroneous microscopic hair testimony proffered by an FBI-trained state examiner,” Chris Fabricant of the Innocence Project said when prosecutors dismissed the indictments this year.

On Thursday, Fabricant said Bridges “is grateful to Gov. McCrory for granting him a pardon that will go a long way towards helping him to put this long nightmare to rest. “In the year since his release, Mr. Bridges has struggled to put his life back together. While nothing can undo the damage he suffered, the official recognition of his innocence and the compensation he will receive will mean his adjustment will be much easier.”

Bridges always maintained his innocence. He’s living with family members and earlier this year earned his first driver’s license. His uncle helped him buy a car, and various organizations were helping him to adjust to life outside of prison.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak